Celebrating its 35th anniversary this year, Alaska Aerofuels, based at Fairbanks International Airport (AFA), has carved out a comfortable niche for itself as a favored tech-stop for aircraft transiting between Asia and North America.
The airport, with an 11,800-foot main runway, came into existence in the early 1950s when it replaced Weeks Field, which served not only as the town’s airstrip since 1923, but also as a baseball field. As the main air transit hub in the interior of the state, which has the world’s highest per capita airplane ownership, AFA sees 300 operations a day, the vast majority of them in the local general aviation, air taxi and transient categories, and Alaska Aerofuels has been catering to them since 1982, when it was formed “by a couple of guys and a truck,” according to Jacqueline Dispoto, the company’s director of marketing.
After occupying existing buildings on the airport for two decades, the company built a 4,750-sq-ft terminal in 2005, and redecorated it over the past year. It features a lobby and reception area along with a pilots' lounge, a snooze room with blackout screens to shield it from the summer’s 24 hours of daylight, shower and laundry facilities, an A/V-equipped 10-seat conference room, business center, a trio of crew SUVs and onsite car rental. Before each arrival, staff members brew a fresh pot of local North Pole coffee and pop a tray of chocolate chip cookies into the oven. Other popular local treats on offer are Hot Licks ice cream, and bowls of birch-syrup caramels.
The location has four acres of ramp space and a heated 18,000-sq-ft hangar, which can accommodate aircraft up to a G550. To prevent the build up of snow and ice at its entrance, the first several feet of ramp leading up to the hangar doors are heated as well. Despite the at-times bone-chilling cold, which attracts aircraft manufacturers for cold weather testing, the area’s climate could be described as arid, seldom tallying more than three feet of powdery snow for the entire winter. As such, the airport has had only three winter weather-related runway closures since 2001, the longest for just 47 minutes. With temperatures that average in the negative teens in winter, the FBO offers free de-icing on all international tech stops for aircraft up to Globals, the Falcon 8X and G650.
Tech stops make up the majority of the location’s business, and the NATA Safety 1st-trained line service staff takes “the Nascar pit stop approach to quick turns,” according to Dispoto, adding “we have such an amazing ramp crew, most with military Arctic aviation experience, able to work with a vast variety of aircraft under what some people would consider diverse conditions. In February, spinning an aircraft at 38 degrees below is nothing for us because they have the experience.”
While most long-range aircraft visiting the facility are there for less than half an hour, there are exceptions. One long-time Asian customer who visits the facility several times a year arrives on a BBJ, and while the aircraft is being serviced, essentially takes over the entire terminal to enjoy a formal meal cooked by the customer’s own chefs, using portable grills, served on its own china. The FBO decorates the conference room and pilots' lounge with the company’s décor according to specific seating arrangements. “It takes additional staff for the preparation, of course, but this is what the client wants and this is what the client gets,” Dispoto told AIN.
The location goes to lengths to welcome Asian clientele. It has arranged with a local Chinese restaurant to prepare a menu of authentic Chinese dishes, not simply Americanized versions, and can provide limited Japanese, Korean and Thai cuisine. A Hong-Kong born tea master lives in the area, and the FBO has hosted formal tea ceremonies for customers in the lobby. It has translators available for Mandarin, Cantonese and Korean, while the company’s CEO is fluent in Japanese. “We don’t have to pay him extra, thank goodness,” quipped Dispoto.
The facility is typically open from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m., but it is available 24/7, 365 days a year. It can offer U.S. customs any time, with one hour's notice. “We are the only FBO in the entire state of Alaska to have onsite, inside the FBO, CIQ available 24/7,” noted Dispoto. “That is a major home run because we’re the only facility in Alaska where you can step off the airplane, walk into the FBO and be processed right there, whether you are a national or not.” That is especially convenient given the two-mile separation between the airline terminal and the Alaska Aerofuels location.
Business at the facility has been on the rise. Since the new terminal opened in 2005, the company has seen business grow by 300 percent, and in the first part of 2017 alone it is up by 20 percent. As the airport’s only full-service FBO, the company also manages AFA’s one-million-gallon capacity fuel farm. It also has its own fuel storage, which by the end of next month will be upgraded from 12,000-gallon tanks for jet-A and avgas, to 30,000-gallon tanks. For corporate and private jets, the company pumps two million gallons of fuel annually.