KENNESAW, GA — On a cool late winter afternoon here some 21 miles northwest of downtown Atlanta, Preferred Jet Center general manager Andrew Ash shares his enthusiasm, even in a down economy, while also tempering it. “We’ve definitely been affected, like everybody,” he says. But the fixed base operator has weathered the storm, thinks Ash, and is poised for growth, particularly interested in forming new partnerships which in turn will allow it to offer more services.
Relates Ash, “We’ve been trying to be as efficient as possible. Our business model has been one of trying to pass on relatively low costs, and the way our airport is structured we can do that.
“We’ve lost customers and gained others.”
Ash says that Preferred Jet, which has had fairly consistent annual revenues of some $3 million, saw a drop of some 20 percent in 2009. “We had a strong end of last year with a good last quarter,” he says. “We actually had some growth in our last quarter. We had a better January than the previous year. But, we’re definitely not rolling in it.
Ash says that because many flight departments’s budgets remain constrained, they are taking less uplift. “People who used to take 500 gallons as a courtesy are now taking 200 gallons, or none at all. It has nothing to do with anything we’ve done; they’re strapped,” he comments.
“We just have to ride it out together.The postures of a lot of the flight departments have changed.”
The GM explains that the company’s 15 full-time employees must work harder than ever on customer service — the economic conditions have customers exploring their options. And everybody else is chomping at the bit to get that business,” says Ash.
He remains enthusiastic that general and business aviation is on the rebound. “People have come to terms with what the economy is, and now can make decisions accordingly,” says Ash. “Everybody was posturing for a while, trying to figure out what was going on, and then you get to a point of not doing anything. Now people are trying to make something happen.
He also relates that he was encouraged by the recent Schedulers & Dispatchers convention hosted in San Antonio by the National Business Aviation Association. An exhibitor, Ash characterizes the January event as “enthusiastic — it was an incredible turnout.”
In business since 2001
Preferred Jet Center is based at the Cobb County-McCollumn Airport, which is ranked in the top four of Georgia airports with some 350 takeoffs and landings each day, according to the airport. A designated reliever to Atlanta, the airport is owned and operated by Cobb County. It encompasses some 320 acres and has one runway (6,305x100 feet). Of the 350 based aircraft at the airport, Preferred Jet hosts some 86, according to Ash.
A six-month runway rewidening project was completed in 2008, which included entirely closing the runway in November. Recalls Ash, “Add the economy on top of that and it didn’t help matters. But we were able to get through it.”
Preferred Jet Center was acquired in 2001 out of bankruptcy by co-owners Mitch Nimey and Larry Thompson. While successful in real estate, each had long-term ties to McCollom Airport, relates Ash. They negotiated a new 30-year lease with the county.
“Larry was one of the first linemen here. He worked for Joe Sandman, who was the first airport director out here. Mitch was an instructor with Embry-Riddle. They partnered together and got into real estate; then when they had the opportunity to buy this, they did. They love aviation and we operate it as such,” he says.
The FBO pumps some 1.1 millions annually, some 85 percent of which is jet-A. The eleven-acre leasehold hosts five hangars with a total of 80,000 square feet of storage, along with another 20,000 square feet of office space intermingled.
Ash came to Preferred Jet shortly after the new owners took over, coming from another FBO on the field, Northside Aviation. Says Ash, “I was working for another private FBO under Bob Brown. He was a legend in the local area. There were several of us who worked under him. We had a relationship with the guys that purchased this and then they brought us on board to develop this place.”
At one time the company had a sister operation, Preferred Maintenance, but got out of that business and prefers today to take a ‘partnering’ approach, according to Ash.
“The airport was going through a transition time in 2001,” he says. “In the past ten, 12 years this airport has come into its own. Being in Atlanta, there are so many options; a lot of full-service maintenance organizations. We allow them to come out and do work if a customer needs it, so nobody is without the service.”
The GM relates that when the new FBO lease was being negotiated, the issue of requiring a full array of services was discussed. Explains Ash, “We were able to make the argument that one, we’re never going to have a customer be without that service. But we’re not going to have a regular business with operating hours as a maintenance facility. Plus, there are piston facilities that have been out here for awhile. If we start doing something like that then we’re in direct competition. Then everybody’s got a lesser piece of the pie.
“So, we made the argument that it was better for the whole when it came to maintenance. We’ve got agreements with maintenance operations depending on what we need. That helped us meet our agreement with the county.”
From a marketing standpoint, Preferred Jet’s primary objective is to change the habits of corporates who fly to and from the Atlanta metro area. McCollom Airport is close enough, yet far enough to be out of the highly congested airspace, says Ash.
“We’re a metropolitan airport without the metropolitan hassles. And we’re a single-runway airport, located at a point where people can get in and out of here quickly. To be as efficient and operate at the level that it does and be consistently one of the top airports in the state, that’s what is distinctive about this airport,” which also has a contract tower.
Ash calls Atlanta a “melting pot city”, which attracts a variety of businesses and thus an array of customers across the business spectrum. “It’s a melting pot of different types of traffic,” he says. “It’s a mix. A lot of people headed downtown use other airports. But that is one argument we’ve been trying to change people’s perceptions about this airport. That is changing; we’ll never get the largest percentage of it.
“We have people that come in here for games and events, for tournaments. March Madness; football games. Cobb Energy Center is a performing arts center right at Loop 285; they hold a lot of events.”
A business park surrounds McCollom Airport, which also provides some of the customer base.
Regarding other higher profile relievers in the Atlanta area, Ash says it’s more an attitude that has to be overcome versus competing directly with airports. “Our competition is not so much any of the other FBOs as it is trying to change people’s perception about Peachtree-DeKalb or Fulton County [airports]. There are a lot of people who use those airports who don’t even know this airport exists. They go into those airports as creatures of habit. For us, it’s a matter of trying to educate people to look at the options. Getting in and out of our airspace is a lot quicker.”
Preferred Jet is also in early discussions with the airport for more space on the field, which would allow the FBO to expand its services, likely through partnerships, says Ash.