FBO) Life Begins at 60: New life for retired pilot, ailing airport

BUSINESS PROFILE

(FBO) Life Begins At 60

By Jodi Richards, Associate Editor

New life for retired pilot, ailing airport

Covington Airport Sign Bob Riddell

COVINGTON, GA — Many look at retirement as an opportunity to relax, maybe travel, do the things for which there never seemed enough time. Not Bob Riddell. After 32 years with Delta Airlines, 25 of those as

captain, Riddell was offered early retirement from the airline. “I tried retirement for about two weeks," he relates, "and it didn’t take too well on me, so I started a new 30-year career. That’s pretty presumptuous, isn’t it?” Riddell is confident his investment in a fixed base operation here will pay dividends for the community, as well as greater Atlanta.

Riddell’s new career is a company he founded, Aviation Investment Resources, Inc., which manages a fixed base operation, Dixie Jet Service, here at Covington Municipal Airport, as well as a charter company, AvJets Air Charter, and a flight training business, AIRFlight Academy.

AIR assumed responsibility of operations of the FBO at Covington Airport on November 9, 2001. And, as Riddell puts it, he had “impeccable timing.” The months immediately following the events of 9/11 were difficult for all aspects of aviation.

He explains he performed “due diligence” on the company for some two years before entering the FBO business, which he did by steps, first purchasing 50 percent into the FBO and charter company before finally taking complete ownership of both as well as the hangar and office building. AIR has some ten employees.

Riddell got his start in aviation as a young man taking flight lessons and “doing whatever I could to get the time. I’d do anything — just let me know when an airplane’s leaving,” he recalls. “I’m not sure I ever made a dollar flying until I got with Delta.”

WINDS OF CHANGE
According to Riddell, the FBO under-performed for some three years prior to AIR’s takeover. “In the two years we’ve had it,” he says, “We’ve gone from about 40 [based] aircraft to about 80.”

Our biggest problem when we took over was we were really dependent on just fuel sales, and the fuel volume was not tremendous,” says Riddell. The airport pumped some 80,000 gallons of fuel in 2003, comprised of 40 percent avgas, 60 percent jet-A.

Riddell explains, “We set about trying to improve the ancillary services and the revenues from them.” The FBO offers some 60 tie down spaces, as well as office space for lease.

In Riddell’s years at Covington, AIR has steadily improved financial performance month after month, he says. “We’re looking forward to a good 2004.”

Roy Hembree operates the FBO’s maintenance facility as Hembree Aviation. Riddell calls it a partnership under which AIR provides the overhead and Hembree provides his own tools and the labor as well as pays the company a percentage of gross revenue. “As we grow, we help him grow and vice versa,” says Riddell. “It really helps an entrepreneur get a running start without having to make a big initial investment and the years it takes to break even. We took the risk up front, but as he gets bigger and bigger, we benefit more and more. We want him to succeed.”

The charter side of the business is called AVJets Air Charter. “Right now we only have one aircraft, a Mitsubishi MU2,” says Riddell. But there is interest from aircraft owners to add their planes to the certificate as managed aircraft. He says AIR is also negotiating a deal to acquire a charter company that currently operates Lear 55s and Gulfstream-IIIs. “We’ve made an offer, they’ve accepted, now we’re getting down to the details.”

GOOD NEWS, BAD NEWS
The airport is owned by the city of Covington, GA. “We don’t have an airport authority and that’s kind of good news and bad news for us,” says Riddell. “The good news is we don’t have a lot of bureaucracy to deal with; the bad news is we don’t have a neutral body to solicit government funding for infrastructure for the airport. It would be nice to have somebody who is watching after the airport infrastructure.”

One major improvement Riddell would like to see at the airport is final passage of a proposal to extend the 4,200-foot runway to 5,500 feet. “This would open the door to corporate aircraft,” explains Riddell. “We have a great opportunity here for a tremendous amount of business growth.” Covington Airport would be designated as a reliever for Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport with the longer runway, and therefore eligible for federal funding.

Riddell says the City of Covington and a neighboring community are not completely supportive of the runway expansion. “From a practical side, the arguments against the expansion are very hollow,” he says. “The expansion of the runway is not going to do anything but make it safer because the size of the aircraft [coming in and out] is not going to change. It’s still a general aviation/corporate airport. It’s going to be a safe corporate environment. It will be a more thriving, more economically viable airport. It will be better for the community, bring more jobs, and it will not increase the noise.”

AIR has some 26 years remaining on a 30-year lease with the City of Covington. The lease covers seven acres of airport property. Riddell says he would like to expand that by an additional ten acres, on which he’d build commercial, corporate, and t-hangars. “All of that would be private investment from our company,” he says. “It would not come from any federal, state, or local funding at all. The only thing we would ask is matching infrastructure in the airport, such as improved rampways, taxiways, and of course, the runway extension. That’s very important in order for us to make this investment.”

Riddell is quick to add that the company’s viability at Covington isn’t based on the runway expansion. “We couldn’t afford to make the investment counting on the expansion of the runway. We’re going to make the best of this airport if it’s 4,200 feet or 5,500. We think that 5,500 would be icing on the cake. We think it’d be very good for the community; very good for aviation, for the city of Atlanta, and the city of Covington.”

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