AvCenter at Wilmington

AvCenter at Wilmington

Growing network focuses on core FBO services, just-in-time cargo at its Delaware location

By John F. Infanger, Editorial Director

September 2001


WILMINGTON, DE — AMPORTS purchased the aviation division of Johnson Controls in 1997, and has since expanded its FBO AvCenter network to five locations, having added the former Heritage Flight at Burlington, VT, this summer. At the New Castle County Airport here, a previous acquisition is today a remodeled, growing fixed base operation that’s moving in synch with the governing authority to capture new business. And, it’s having success as the handler of just-in-time inventories for nearby automotive plants.

The FBO AvCenter at Wilmington is the former Dawn Aeronautics, an FBO with the primary business of flight training when AMPORTS acquired it in 1999. Since that time, the FBO AvCenter has worked at refining the just-in-time inventory service Dawn had started, which includes owning a fleet of trucks. The key growth areas at Wilmington, according to John I. Harden, AMPORTS vice president of aviation business development, are corporate fuel sales and possible commercial airline services.
The New Castle County Airport, operated by the Delaware River & Bay Authority (DRBA), is also home to Dassault Falcon Jet’s maintenance and FBO center (former Atlantic Aviation), and a third FBO, Aero-Taxi, Inc.. "It’s a competitive environment," says Harden.
The DRBA’s investment in the infrastructure since acquisition of the airport in 1995 has resulted in a modern airfield, a soon to be commissioned control tower which it funded, and development of a corporate hangar campus. It is the latter which is the growth target for both the DRBA, which ties corporate airport growth with other economic development initiatives, and the FBO AvCenter.
Explains Harden, "If you look at what’s happened in the past five to six years since the DRBA has stepped in, you’ve seen a three-fold growth in corporate jets that are based here. I believe they have 72 today.
"To top that off, they’ve had a very clear signal to the user community as well as to the businesses that we want this place to be a going concern. They’ve sunk their own money into the airport to make it happen. They’ve put in eight new hangars; they have spots for two BBJs. It’s a great success story."
With the tax laws in Delaware such that they encourage companies to incorporate here, a regular flow of corporate management flies in for board and other business meetings. "So there’s a large transient following, but there’s also evidence that this place has grown in its base population," says Harden.
ImageImage At the FBO AvCenter at Wilmington, the company serves automakers by being a key link in delivery of just-in-time inventories at local Chrysler and Saturn plants.

For the most part, says Harden, the FBO AvCenter here is very much a traditional operation, with a core business base of based light aircraft. The flight training business was sold to Delaware Skyways, which remains in the AvCenter facility as a subtenant. "We felt it was important to maintain the tradition of the flight school here, but did not think it was a core business for us," explains Harden.
"There were a lot of different dimensions to this facility. The intent was to look at the various businesses and focus on where we saw our strengths, but not necessarily undermining all the things that were in motion. The flight school is an example of how we spun it off but kept it in motion.
"What the previous owners had been successful in doing was building a following not only on the tenant side but also on the transient side, which is where we wanted to focus our energies."
Of the five FBOs in the AvCenter chain, Wilmington is the only one at which the FBO doesn’t have into-plane business. (The other FBOs are at Biloxi-Gulfport, MS; and Pittsburgh; and Louisville.) New Castle County Airport has had commercial air service in the past — most recently by Spirit America — and it remains a target of both DCRA and AMPORTS, both report.
Meanwhile, what has grown into a significant core business at Wilmington has been serving as an ad hoc cargo handler for just-in-time inventory for nearby automotive assembly plants for Chrysler and Saturn, according to Harden.
"This airport has an interesting role to play because just-in-time figures very closely into the strategy that the automakers have here, as well as timed deliveries that are flown into here in DC-8s, DC-9s, down to Learjets. There’s no onsite storage. It’s basically a throughput process; we get it off the airplane with our small fleet of trucks and actually take it right to the assembly line and the parts go right onto the line. There’s no staging of these materials.
"The cargo is another piece that was part of the acquisition. It has its place in our business."

TARGET: More FBOS; Airport Contracts
Both Harden and operations manager Mike Peery are charged with the task of bringing new FBOs under the AMPORTS umbrella. Peery serves as GM for the Wilmington and Louisville FBOs, the latter being where he has worked for both previous owners, Butler Aviation and Signature Flight Support. He is responsible for integrating a newly acquired base into the AMPORTS way of doing business.
"What we’re trying to do is build and grow a system (of FBOs)," explains Peery. "The parts are all identical in presenting a business climate and a very basic attitude designed around the customer. While each location has its own local personality, there is a link between this AvCenter and the others. We’re trying to build a network of FBOs, strategically located in good markets."
Harden says the company is taking a serious look at "five or six" possible FBO acquisitions at present.
He also heads up the contract airport management business that includes facilities at Teterboro, NJ, and White Plains, NY. "We’re focusing our energies on where can we help create a solution for an airport owner," he says. "We have about four or five different airport management opportunities that aren’t in response to something being issued."