While most FBOs earn their keep by taking care of passengers and flight crews, Gateway Aviation Services, the lone FBO at Arizona’s Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport, has made a name for itself serving a different category of customer: aircraft manufacturers. Established in 1994 at the former Williams Air Force Base, the airport has three things in abundance, runway length (its three runways are all over 9,000 feet long), uncluttered airspace, and predictably unrelenting heat in the summer, all of which combine to make it an attractive venue for heat-soak testing for new aircraft programs. According to Matt Nebgen, the FBO’s director, this past summer, the location played host to four test programs: the Mitsubishi MRJ, the Boeing 737 Max, the Bombardier Global 7000, and engine tests on the Embraer E190, each of which brought dozens of technicians and engineers to the facility, with three of the programs taking up residence at the same time. All that activity was in addition to the FBO’s normal operations, plus its role as a seasonal firefighting base for the National Forest Service and its trio of DC-10s.
When the tests concluded, all left satisfied. “I think it speaks to the staff of the FBO and of the airport as well, and it just showcased our capabilities to rise to the challenge,” Nebgen told AIN, adding that his staff was tasked with obtaining rental equipment for each of the manufacturers to support their testing.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the airport’s management of the FBO, which occupies approximately 5,700 sq ft of space in what was formerly the late 1960s vintage T-37 “Tweet” jet training operations center at the military base, which from its inception in 1941 to its closing in 1993 supplied the U.S. Army Air Corps and then the U.S. Air Force with a quarter of its pilots. The history of the base and later the airport is detailed on a wall in the FBO in plaques and display cases of models.
When the airport, which is located less than 30 miles from downtown Phoenix, was converted to civilian use in 1994, the FBO was managed by a private operator for several years, but after hearing dissatisfaction from customers regarding the service, the airport board decided to let the lease expire, and bring the facility’s management in-house.
Nebgen is just the second director of the FBO in the two decades since. “I really believe I inherited a Cadillac,” he said, crediting his predecessor with establishing a “first–class service culture” at the facility. “Hopefully I haven’t dinged it up too much.”
The FBO has a staff of 36 and is open 24/7. The terminal offers the standard amenities including passenger lobby, pilots' lounge with convertible sofas, flight-planning room, 20-seat A/V-equipped conference room, training/flight test room, shower facilities, onsite car rental and crew car. An outpost of the local favorite Barrio Brewing Company recently opened in the facility and can provide catering along with Scottsdale-based traditional catering provider Food 4 Jets.
With the exception of the fuel Textron Service Center sells to its customers, Gateway Aviation provides all the fueling service to the airport’s commercial, general aviation and military customers, pumping more than 16 million gallons a year, more than 3 million gallons a year to GA alone. The FBO manages the Epic Fuels-supplied airport fuel farm, which can hold 250,000 gallons of jet-A and 12,000 gallons of avgas, and operates the fleet of eight modern fuel trucks: six jet tankers ranging from 10,000 gallons to 5,000 gallons, and a pair of 100LL refuelers of 1,500 and 2,200 gallons, all operated by the facility’s team of NATA Safety 1st-trained line technicians.
Despite operating from a 50-year old facility, the airport has continually improved the FBO's terminal, and it is planning an $800,000 renovation and remodel that will add several thousand square feet of space, including moving the customer service counter closer to the ramp to provide the CSRs with a 180-degree view of the apron activity. This comes after the airport completed a $10 million project to replace one million sq ft of WWII-era concrete on the ramp in September. In June, the FBO’s onsite U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility was relocated to a $500,000 facility, which opens on to the ramp and allows aircraft arriving from international trips to taxi right up to the FBO for clearance.
The facility, a member of the UVAir FBO Network, is home to eight turbine aircraft ranging from a GIV to a pair of Eclipse 500s, and for hangar space, it has four landmark status hangars dating from WWII. They provide a total of 50,000 sq ft of shelter and are limited to aircraft up to a Hawker 800, mainly due to tail height. “Over the last couple of years we have seen an increase in large-tail aircraft here, and we just do not have the facilities to be able to support that,” noted Nebgen. “We are exploring our options to be able to build at a minimum a 30,000-sq-ft, 30-foot-tail-height hangar.” He said he hopes to be able to add the hangar in the next few years. “I do believe that if you build it they will come, and I think we’re positioned and the timing is right that the financial outlay will be offset by the return.”
The FBO is currently gearing up for its busy season as Midwestern snowbirds descend on the region to escape the brutal winter. Some come back year after year and spend several months there, allowing the staff to get to know them.