One of the impacts of the Covid pandemic has been the widespread cancellation of events that would normally attract large numbers of attendees. For an FBO in a leisure/vacation area that typically hosts many such spectator events, like Ross Aviation at the Palm Springs, California-area Jacqueline Cochrane Regional Airport (TRM), there was a definite economic hit.
Last month, the annual Desert International Horse Show, an outdoor event that takes place in an equestrian complex near the airport, opened as the first major event in the area in 10 months.“Other than that, everything else was canceled,” said Timothy Goulet, general manager of Ross Aviation TRM. That included crowd-drawing events such as the BNP Paribas professional tennis tournament, ANA Inspiration LGPA golf tournament, fashion shows, art shows, and the area’s signature music events: Coachella and its country sibling Stage Coach, which span three consecutive weekends and attract hoards of visitors and scores of private aircraft.
All those events were scheduled over a span of six weeks starting in March, in the middle of the area’s peak tourism season. “If you make your money between November and May 31st, that’s probably 30 percent of it right there,” Goulet told AIN, adding that while the year wasn’t anywhere near where he wanted it to be, it still wasn’t horrible, with private aviation activity rising steadily through the fourth quarter. “On the Sunday after Thanksgiving, we had over 80 movements, but for December of course California went back into another lockdown.”
The company, one of the now two full-service FBOs on the field, was primed for a strong 2020, having just acquired and incorporated the rival Signature FBO location. The two companies have had an entwined relationship at the airport. Ross Aviation purchased the former Tradition Aviation FBO in 2005, which was then acquired by Landmark Aviation when it purchased the Ross Aviation chain. In 2016, when Signature acquired Landmark in a blockbuster deal, it was required to divest six locations where it would have had a service monopoly, including at TRM. Jeff Ross, backed by KSL Capital Partners, acquired those six locations, which became the nucleus of a new, resurgent Ross Aviation that now operates 19 FBOs at 17 locations across the U.S. “One thing that [company leadership] in Denver has allowed the managers of Ross Aviation to do is they allow us to run our shows, which is really important,” said Goulet. “Each FBO is its own thing, its own market. We try to accommodate anything the clients need us to do within reason, we just try to be more like a big mom and pop.”
Between its two TRM locations, the Avfuel-branded FBO, which has a staff of 24, now occupies a 40-acre leasehold, including 14 acres of heavy ramp. Ross Aviation has more than 120,000 sq ft of hangar space able to accommodate the largest business jets and is home to 24 turbine-powered aircraft ranging from a Global 5000 to several PC-12s.
As part of the Signature purchase, Ross acquired a 25,000-sq-ft 1940’s vintage hangar, dating back to the airport’s days as a WWII military training base. During what would have been last year’s Coachella, the hangar was slated to rent out for $65,000 for use as a venue for a private VIP concert featuring a major performer. That was canceled like the rest of the event. Ross is now in discussions with a major charter operator to lease that hangar as a Part 145 maintenance base for its fleet of aircraft, a move that will revitalize that end of the airport.
The main 3,600-sq-ft Ross terminal was built in 2015 and features a pilot lounge, 10-seat A/V-equipped conference room, shower facilities, concierge, crew cars, onsite car rental, and a rampside patio. The former Signature facility to the south, which was temporarily closed during the pandemic lull, added another 8,000 sq ft of offices and other amenities including a snooze room and a second conference room.
In addition, the FBO which is staffed from 6 a.m. until 10 p.m. in season and closes two hours earlier in the offseason, now has two fuel farms. On the north side, it has 24,000 gallons of jet A and 12,000 gallons of avgas, while on the south there is a 10,000-gallon jet A tank and 5,000 gallons of avgas. They are served by the company's NATA Safety 1st-trained line staff, which operates a fleet of seven tankers, including one 10,000-gallon commercial grade and four 5,000-gallon jet A refuelers, along with 1,000- and 750-gallon avgas trucks.
“Hopefully this year once we get past the Covid and things settle down, we’re going to have a good year,” said Goulet, who is also the current vice president of the Southern California Aviation Association. “We’re really investing heavily in this airport and we believe in it. It’s a destination and it will weather this storm in my opinion.”