Dit Panfile Reflects

Today 83 years young, Dit Panfile relates, “I always tell people that when I wake up and I’m on this side of the grass, it’s a good day.” An entrepreneur who owned an airplane, he got into the FBO business at age 41 when his VOR stopped working and he stopped in at Teterboro Avionics, which in time he would wind up buying and renaming Aero Services. Ultimately, Aero Services grew to become one of the largest chains of fixed base operations in the 1980s with 32 locations.

Panfile took Aero Services public and eventually lost control of the company. Then came ownership in four Million Air franchises, notably at Chicago Midway and New Orleans Lakefront. This year Landmark Aviation acquired the FBOs of Odyssey Aviation, with which Panfile was associated via his long-time relationship with Odyssey president Ken Allison.

airport business recently caught up with Panfile to have him reflect on his 40-plus years in the business. As in past interviews, he played up the importance of service and relationships, the latter accounting for the deep following he has earned among the ranks of FBO managers that he has worked with over the years. Following are talking points and edited responses from our recent interview ...

On the experience of taking Aero Services public ...

“We went public around 1984/85. When I took over the CSX Beckett bases I borrowed some money and went public to get cash to do that. A group in New York bought a whole bunch of my stock and tried to take over the company; we had a proxy contest and I won. They came back a year later with a lot more stock and voted me out of the company — threw me out, basically. And they proceeded to throw out all of my key people. Sandy Lockhart and all those guys. Good, solid managers.

“It didn’t take long, about a year and a half, and the company was absolutely broke and they started selling off bases to meet their financial obligations. All of the bases they sold off are doing very well now. They made a classic mistake — a guy can fly an airplane, so he can run an FBO.”

On life after Aero Services ...

“I got into my own company, Aviation Services Group, which was FBOs again. I bought the base at Midway Airport in Chicago, and the one at New Orleans Lakefront.

“I hired Ken Allison at Midway, who was really good with people. At first he was the line service manager; then GM. I bought four bases. Then he and George Kingston bought me out of those bases. The others were at Columbus and Cincinnati.

On the cycles of the business ...

“I remember Teterboro when we had three or four FBOs giving flight training and selling airplanes. At all times you could see 50 or more airplanes on the ramps there, with instructors and pilots in training.

“We never got involved in flight training. We concentrated pretty much on fuel and hangaring. It was a good business. All the other guys stayed with the other model. I wanted to create a high level of service. When customers called in I wanted somebody there who was thoroughly trained and could arrange for limousines, hotels, and do it in a professional way.”

On his Chicago experience and the changing face of airport leases ...

“I’ve heard stories about how Chicago is so crooked; I had very good relationships with the people of Chicago. They were always very straightforward; you could put together a deal verbally and then it would turn up pretty much as it was agreed on, and you could get a lease done in 30 to 60 days.

“Now it takes much longer, and not just in Chicago. It just seems like you can’t put an agreement together that hangs together for more than two or three years. People seem to be concerned that they’ll put something together that will come back and bite them.

“The big thing these days seems to be insurance and everybody covering their rear ends from every possible angle.”

On the issue of old storage tanks, a hot topic in the ‘80s/’90s ...

“A big problem at Chicago was the ground pollution and the tanks that had been in the ground for 40 years. That was going to cost millions, and nobody [tenants] could afford that. The city finally decided that they would take the tanks out. A similar thing happened in New Orleans.”

On the subject of airports getting into the FBO services business ...

“That’s the way it used to be. In the old days the airports ran them and ran them very badly. So it was easy for a fixed base operation to come in and do a much better job. That’s generally going to be the case, with some exceptions, with airports. You just can’t seem to motivate people, not only at the service level, but also at the middle management level. When a guy comes in with an airplane and you make him wait a half hour for a cab, you’ve just blown his day.

“It’s why you have to take it out of the government’s hands and put it to private enterprise.

On the impact of consolidation on the FBO industry ...

“There’s no question it’s changing. One reason is it takes so much money to do anything is that it’s hard for an individual to compete. Of course, the airport authorities like to deal with the big companies because of their credit ratings.

“I don’t see it as a good trend, by the way. Size doesn’t usually result in good service at the ground level. When people get associated with something that is too big they seem to lose what the real mission of the operation is, which is to get somebody handled quickly so they can get out and get their business done.”

On changes in how FBOs are designed and how they deliver service ...

“The changes I’ve seen over 40 years have been from real small mom and pops with very rudimentary facilities; even the restrooms were just terrible in those days.

“I guess something is lost when you get it to the point that it’s cold and impersonal and nobody knows anybody anymore by name. If you go into a facility … how do you describe the eyes that look at you and do they look glassy and are they not really looking at you? They almost look through you.”

On personnel entering the FBO industry today ...

“Back in the early days a lot of the people you hired really wanted to get into aviation. They were fueling airplanes, but a year or so later they were flying airplanes. They were moving up in the ranks. I don’t see that today. It’s a job, but they’re not interested in flying an airplane.

“There seems to be a completely different attitude now, though some of it is good. They seem to be smarter; they learn more quickly, and that’s a good thing.

“In the late ‘80s, we had an incident in New Orleans where an MU-2 was loaded with people and the left engine caught fire when they started it up. Of course on the MU-2 the boarding door is on the left side, behind the wing. We had two line guys on duty and Ollie Carter got a fire extinguisher and put the fire out. And those people all got out.

“I’m not sure you have people like Ollie Carter these days.”