It's Taking Off: FirstFlight Growing

Feb. 11 -- PITTSTON TWP., Pa. -- While searching for a new name for their aviation services business, Ron Ricciardi and other company officers looked within as the company charted a course toward charter management.

FBO Air Inc. worked when the Scottsdale, Ariz. company set out to form a nationwide network of fixed base operators to fuel and service aircraft.

Along the way it bought operations in New York, Garden City, Kan. and the Tech Aviation company at the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton International Airport. FBO Air moved its corporate headquarters here in 2005.

But with their FirstFlight charter management operation in Horseheads, N.Y. taking off, they selected that as a brand name.

"FBO Air was the growth model when our business was to acquire FBOs," said Ricciardi, FirstFlight's vice chairman, who splits his time between the local and Horseheads operations.

The publicly traded company still fuels and services aircraft and maintains them. Companywide it has a work force of more than 100. At Wilkes-Barre/Scranton it employs 45 people, leases a building and manages four others on site where aircraft are stored. Now the company's primary revenue generator is the charter management arm, Ricciardi said.

For between $2,000 and $8,000 an hour, clients can charter a jet for travel across state, across country or across international borders.

One day last week, three sleek and streamlined jets gleamed under the bright lights inside the FirstFlight maintenance hangar at the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton airport.

The Lear jet, the Cessna Citation II and the Beechcraft Premier I are privately owned. When not in use by their owners, FirstFlight takes over, scheduling trips, providing pilots and flight crews, maintaining the aircraft and ensuring they meet all required Federal Aviation Administration regulations.

"We'll arrange to make the plane available to be chartered," Ricciardi said. FirstFlight has a sales team at Teterboro Airport in New Jersey, the center of corporate charter travel in the Northeast.

Ricciardi, who does not have a pilot's license, described FirstFlight as a "boutique" operation that serves its clientele on a highly personalized basis.

The airline industry, including the general aviation segment, has changed after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

FirstFlight cited an industry rebound in the use of private aircraft for business and leisure travel because of check-in delays associated with added security measures for commercial passengers.

The company said its services could also benefit from the new generation of smaller, more affordable private jets that have a shorter flying range than existing models. FirstFlight said it also could gain from the demand for fixed base operations to fuel the newer aircraft that need to stop on transcontinental flights.

The aircraft owners receive between 88 and 90 percent of the fee and FirstFlight, the remaining 10 to 12 percent, Ricciardi explained. The deal allows the owners to offset their costs of owning the aircraft and provides revenue for the company.

The company manages 17 jet aircraft, placing it in the top 20 nationally and the top 5 in the Northeast. In addition to New York and Pennsylvania, the company manages aircraft in California and Florida.

There are charter management companies which own aircraft, but FirstFlight chose not to, Ricciardi said.

"For us we determined that we did not, do not want to own aircraft. We believe there is volatility in that marketplace we want to avoid," he said.

Before forming the company four years ago with former director and executive officer Jeffrey Trenk, Ricciardi served in executive positions with several high technology and consumer products companies. He also held management positions with Pepsi Cola and Perrier Group of America.

Incorporated in 2004, FBO Air evolved out of another corporation created to develop and operate specialty health care facilities for people afflicted with Alzheimer's disease and other related illnesses, according to documents filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

It struggled early on in its development as it sought to raise capital, recruit and hire personnel and identify acquisitions.

Financing for the company has come through a series of stock issues and private placement funding.

From its inception in 2003 to the Sept. 30, 2006, the company reported a net loss of $5.08 million, according to SEC documents.

The company issued a warning advising of the risk investing in it. But Ricciardi said it is on track to grow, having changed its name, streamlined its senior management and moved its corporate offices to the Elmira-Corning Airport in Horseheads.

John Dow, who came to the company after it acquired his FirstFlight Management operation in 2005, serves as president and chief executive officer. He is a licensed pilot.

Keith Bleier, a certified public accountant, is senior vice president and chief financial and accounting officer of FirstFlight.

"We used 2006 as a year to settle in, to get comfortable," Ricciardi said. The company spent the time "learning about ourselves and learning about the industry."

Company facts



What: A publicly traded aviation services company providing charter management, aircraft management and fixed base operations

Where: Wilkes-Barre/Scranton International Airport, Garden City, Kan., Niagara Falls, N.Y. and corporate headquarters in Horseheads, N.Y.

Revenue as of the end of Sept. 30, 2006: $29,830,854

Stock symbol: FFLT.OB

52-week range: 70 cents per share on Feb. 7, 2006 to 38 cents per Feb. 6, 2007. (Includes trading as FBO.OB and FFLT.OB)

Web site: []

Jerry Lynott, a Times Leader staff writer, may be reached at 829-7237.

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