Air Group Thrives on Global Charters

With offices on both coasts, in the Midwest and in Japan, Air Group has positioned itself to cater to businesses in a globalized world.

That's part of what appealed to Avery Dennison's Miller, who at 78 is retired and living in Pasadena. He even bought his own plane, which is managed by Air Group. He flies to Jackson Hole, Wyo., but when he's not using it, Air Group charters it to celebrities and rock bands.

Miller admits that owning a plane is a luxury few can afford. Air Group charges about $1,500 an hour for a small jet, and a cabin-class airplane seating more than eight people can cost as much as $7,000 an hour.

But it was worth it for his business because of all the time he saved, Miller said, and because of the feeling of safety that came with flying privately. This sentiment is not surprising -- part of Winthrop's job is making people feel safe with flying and with the business of corporate aviation, a particular concern for many clients in light of a recent crash near Van Nuys Airport that killed two pilots.

Winthrop accommodates his clients in the smallest of ways: making sure they have whatever food they want, from quality steaks to fresh fish, providing air mattresses on some planes so passengers can sleep comfortably, and even building an outdoor smoking lounge at the Van Nuys facility.

In the CEO's office in a hangar at Van Nuys, small model planes sit on the coffee tables and desks. Photographs of the Navy's Blue Angels demonstration squadron adorn the corridors. In a room on the second floor, a "Star Wars"-like screen follows the progress of planes across the country.

Winthrop shows a visitor around the terminal at Van Nuys, where gleaming striped jets and small white airplanes are polished, vacuumed and checked by Air Group workers. He delves into details about the planes and their capabilities.

Winthrop has provided hands-on stewardship as Air Group thrives in a crowded market, vying with companies such as Woodbridge, N.J.-based NetJets, which allows corporations to share ownership of aircraft. Winthrop said Air Group toyed with the idea but decided that it was too complex and that Air Group could succeed on the basis of past relationships.

So far, he's been right, and the company's expansion is a good indication of that.

In the last few years, there's been a fair amount of competition at Van Nuys, the world's busiest general aviation airport, among companies fighting to open new and improved facilities in an already crowded space.

In 2004, Air Group was part of a failed bid for the right to lease space in a sought-after jet center at Van Nuys. After the companies complained that the lease was awarded based on political influence, the process was relaunched and Air Group decided not to participate.

But this year, when leaseholder Aerolease Associates received permission from Los Angeles World Airports to redevelop a site at Van Nuys, the company awarded Air Group the opportunity to lease the new site.

"There's a demand for facilities at Van Nuys, and we've had a great relationship with the Air Group," said Curt Castagna, president of Aerolease Group, a collection of affiliates with properties at area airports, including Aerolease Associates.

Castagna said Winthrop had a reputation for running a "first-class company" and for being honest and personable. "That's what makes his business successful."

Winthrop will need to bank on such connections as more companies try to tap into a lucrative market.

But he said he was confident that Air Group would thrive. "We've always been a very relationship-driven company."

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