Filling a Changing Need

WHEELING, IL — The Priester family for years owned the Pal-Waukee Airport north of O’Hare International. In 1986, the cities of Prospect Heights and Wheeling purchased the airport, which today is called Chicago Executive.

Priester Aviation eventually sold off its fixed base operation as well, and today Charlie Priester, 73, heads up a global charter company. During a recent interview with airport business, Priester talked about how his company is keeping pace with a changing industry; airports; and his philosophy that the customer still drives the business. Following are edited excerpts ...

On his recent investment in a new $300,000 command center for his dispatching and sales staff ...

“It’s all about the impression. We do all the things we need to do from an FAA and legal standpoint, but the customer doesn’t see that. This is a high-tech, global business, and we wanted to create a high-tech mindset – NASA-like.

“It’s an international operation. So you’ve got to have the technology that can span the different time zones and different elements. It’s a high-tech business; the airplanes are high-tech.

“What we wanted to do was to create a mindset that instantly says this is a high-tech industry; it’s sophiscated. It only takes four seconds to make that impression. That’s what we wanted to accomplish.

“As we speak today, we’ve got four airplanes bouncing around in Europe; we have two that are based in Bangkok.”

On changes in the industry since the sale of the family airport in 1986 ...

“My dad was a visionary. He started with the concept of, What does the customer need? He started with the concept that the airplane was a business tool.

Back in those days, the fleet was a Bonanza and a twin-Beechcraft, probably — if you were that sophisticated. Through the years what’s happened is the equipment has changed, but it’s changed to meet the needs of the user. People in my mind still do business with people. The corporate executives have to make face to face contact.

The one thing that we can never replace is a minute in time. So, the thing that this industry does is allow the corporate users to maximize their time, and maximize the value of every minute. And in that is real value.

We’ve gone from the 150 mph Bonanzas to the 550 mph jets. Now we have equipment that goes 7-8,000 miles without stopping. That’s because the users required it. The international nature of business has required it.

Our customers have told us they need that. The OEMs have done their part. We have to do our part regarding the other services, which means airport and support facilities and hangars and all the rest of the stuff. That’s where I see the industry changing.”

On his advice to airports which are working to increase their role in customer service ...

“It’s all about the customer. That’s what I’d tell the airports, absolutely. I was asked this morning, what do you think should be done with the airport? I said, if we can keep our eye on the ball on the customers’ needs, then as we look at future planning that has to drive our future. Whatever that takes, that has to drive our future plan.

On airport/FBO relations and the need for long-term leases ...

“The fact of the matter is, the airport management at so many airports feels that they are required to have multiple FBOs on the airport because there’s federal money. I’ve been told by a number of attorneys that that is not the case.

“You have to treat everyone the same; but it doesn’t mean you have to create an environment where none of them make any money. There should be a business reason for expanding the number of FBOs. The point I think that is frequently missed is the cost it takes to get in this business, which keeps going up.

“The value of your FBO on leased property is equal to the term of the lease, period.

“I lease from Signature; I’m just a sub-tenant – which was deliberate, by the way. It was deliberate because, for any reason we can pick up our operation and go. I’ve been asked to go to other Chicago airports because of the amount of fuel and other things that we buy; not that I want to go anyplace else. But if we have an airport landlord that becomes unreasonable, I can leave.

On how technology is improving the way Part 135 charter operations track their aircraft and personnel ...

“When TAG Aviation got in trouble and FAA came in, as I understand it, and asked where was your G-IV and was it legal and were the crews legal, the answer was yes. They said, prove it.

“None of us could prove that because we didn’t deal up to that point as an industry with flight releases. Generally what would happen in most operations is we would look at the schedule board and see an airplane that was going from A to B. You’d look at the crew and you had a feel for the match of the crew. You were really doing a risk evaluation. But there was never any documentation saying what you did. If you didn’t like the mix [of crew, aircraft, destination airport], you’d start changing things around and informally had a risk evaluation that passed muster.

“When this happened with TAG we all woke up and said, wait a minute, we better be able to document it. Many of us started documentation that saw the director of maintenance sign off that the aircraft was good to go; the director of flight operations signed off that the crew’s duty times have been met and they’ve been properly trained. Then, the captain of the flight would sign off that the crew is intact and the airplane is ready.

“We started keeping those records. We’re in the final testing process now of doing all that stuff on the new I-Pads; it’s all electronic.

“If one of our airplanes lands in Bangkok, for example, they transmit all of that vital information – engine records; landings; approaches – back to the home base. It’s almost real-time. We’re working on it together with our FSDO. I’ve told them that I’ll give them access to our computer and show where our airplanes are. We have no secrets.

“We’re going live with the flight release part next week. We have five of these units in use for the testing phase.”

On the rapid pace of technological change ...

“It goes back to where we started the conversation: What does the customer need? What does the industry look like? And how do we keep up with it? I’d be scared to death, without this technology, to have airplanes around the world where we have locations. We get information from Bangkok just as fast as we get it from Houston.”