When you think about it, general aviation makes up a large part of the aviation industry. It includes all planes other than those flown by the airlines or the military. Though nearly 78 percent have six or fewer seats, about 65 percent are used for commercial or public service purposes.
A little more than five years ago, immediately following 9/11 (a distant memory...hardly), much of general aviation took a big hit, grounding almost 90 percent of GA aircraft in 30 metropolitan areas. In commercial aviation, according to Henry Paulino, general manager, Landmark Aviation, "People thought, 'oh my God, aviation is going to stop!'" And even though the GA industry was collectively losing an estimated $160 million a day and an initial dread set in, the experience was quite the opposite for FBOs.
Less than a year later, in the spring of 2002, sales of private aircraft continued to strengthen due to the introduction of new plane models and growing interest among companies to travel by private jet—a trend that had taken hold even before the terrorist attacks because of frustrating delays with commercial airlines. Add to that the growing desire to cut travel time as business travelers faced security-related delays with the implementation of the TSA, and you have a recipe for success.
Fast-forward to 2007. More companies have purchased fractional shares, there has been an increase in chartered flights and FBO budgets have greatly improved line items such as renovation, remodeling and new or refurbished GSE and maintenance equipment. More than 150 years in the making, Landmark Aviation is one of those success stories.
Landmark represents the junction of three leaders in the industry; Piedmont Hawthorne, Garrett Aviation and Associated Air Center whose core area of expertise—one of the world's largest FBOs, aircraft modification and maintenance—compliment one another. "Landmark Aviation is really a conglomerate of what we call legacy aviation companies," states Millie Becker, vice president, sales and marketing at Westchester County Airport in White Plains, N.Y. "With the Carlisle Group as our parent company and MRO … and the continued growth of general aviation, Landmark is positioning itself to be the premiere service company to this sector of the industry."
With 35 fully owned and operated sites stretching from coast to coast in the U.S. and Canada, Landmark has an extensive network of FBOs, all of which provide general aviation operations with trained line technicians and full service facilities. "We are looking to be the leading service provider to the general aviation market as well as the airline market … because at this airport and other airports we also provide the fuel services to the airlines, so we really do it all," says Becker. Landmark boasts a list of more than twenty services including, but not exclusive to, deicing, fuel/jet/avgas, cleaning/detailing, lavatory service, catering and of course, maintenance.
Equipment at the White Plains facility includes 28-volt GPUs, two Lektro 8800s, a Northwestern tug, a potable water and lav cart, eight fuel trucks, a Global deicing truck, a scissor lift and fork lift.
A Deep-Seated Community
Like the ground support community, both Paulino and Becker will tell you the GA community consists of individuals who are dedicated, garnering close relationships and who have been in the industry for a long time. Also like ground support, "general aviation is a really small community and we really do the same things in the private world of aviation, just on a smaller scale," says Becker.
A perfect example of this is at Westchester County Airport. Landmark was once Skyport which, founded in 1949, was not only the oldest FBO on the airfield but had only one owner (a phenomenon that no longer exists in the industry) until June of 2004 when it was sold to Jet Equity. "When we came here two years ago, we not only bought the assets of Skyport, we also bought the people that were here," says Paulino. "I have two people who have been here for 25 years." It was family and as both Becker and Paulino will attest, you can't put a price on experience, especially in the GA industry. There are long-term customers who get to know the employees over the years and a familiar face grows to symbolize trust, confidence and family. Of more than 3,000 total employees, there are 34 employees at Landmark's Westchester facility.
One of the commitments the Carlisle Group made to Landmark was to make capital available for acquisitions. After the changeover in 2005 from Jet Equity to Landmark, Skyport was the first acquisition and shortly thereafter Corporate Jets in Scottsdale, Ariz. was purchased.
GSE: A Brand New Lease on Life
Historically, the Skyport FBO only handled the airline fueling, offsite fueling, flight departments and hangar tenants. Two years and an investment of nearly one million dollars later, Landmark has also become a transient operator, with new offices, a refurbished hangar floor and the gradual addition of brand new GSE. "We had about three tugs to tow the planes," says Paulino. "We had lav carts, water carts and fuel trucks, all of which were very dated … so right off the bat, in order for us to be successful, we needed to go in and make the investment here [in GSE].
Skyport owned all of their equipment and one of the most recent purchases that Landmark benefited from in the acquisition was a new Global deicing truck purchased in 2002. But Paulino, a veteran in the GA industry, believes in leasing equipment because as he explains, "when you purchase a tug, [with] the usage that it gets out here on the ramp, after three years it's beat up, and in our industry, it's image." Another interesting point Paulino makes is the fact that with the commercial airlines, passengers are hardly ever on the ramp, whereas in the corporate world, the passenger not only gets on and off the plane directly on the ramp, but walks around, checking to make certain of the plane's condition. "I'll give you a perfect example," says Paulino. "I have an airplane in the hangar that's a $45 million dollar plane. If you are the owner of that plane and I tow it out on the tarmac for departure with a tug that is barely making it, you are going to say, 'wait a minute, something's got to give here.' For us, equipment is very important in attracting people to utilize our facility."
The battery-powered Lektro tug, according to Paulino, has been key to their operation because it has the capability of bringing the airplanes closer than is possible with a conventional tug. "You come in and scoop up a G5 with a Lektro and as you are bringing them in, you have the flexibility without the towbar, to turn around and go right under the belly and bring the airplane closer and stack them easier and into tighter spaces," says Paulino. Currently, Landmark's Westchester FBO operation has several different brands of equipment such as Northwestern, Eagle and Lektro. Eventually, Paulino would like to see more conformity because in his experience it is far more cost-effective on parts and maintenance. In fact, aside from fuel costs, maintenance and salaries are an FBO's number one concern according to Paulino.
Paulino has worked with leasing companies such as Fortbrand Services and Davin Inc., making ground support operations—particularly with larger items such as deicing trucks—convenient and cost-effective.
It's been an interesting journey for FBOs, particularly over the past decade. Prior to 9/11, the GA industry witnessed a boom in large part due to the dot com rage where people were becoming millionaires overnight and a considerable amount was being invested into corporate aviation especially with the fractionals such as Netjet and Flexjet. Of course, when the internet bubble burst, Paulino saw the influx of new money dry up as people became more conservative with those dollars. However, instead of bringing private aviation to a halt, it was just a hiccup and before long, as mentioned earlier, senior executives particularly with the Fortune 500's, were searching for an avenue of travel offering ease and safety. They found it in GA.
According to Landmark Aviation, 'there's only one way to make a great aviation company. Find people who love to fly.' Just about any company will tell you they are looking to be the premier company in the industry. Landmark just might make it.