Private Jet Business Driving General Aviation Growth

Private jets are driving growth in general aviation.

Fixed-base operators are like truck stops for small aircraft, but some of the pilots pull up in $40 million vehicles and spend $5,000 to $10,000 to fill their tanks.

Private jets are driving growth in general aviation. Dolphin Aviation, the dominant jet service provider at Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport, for example, saw its fuel flow nearly double over a five-year period.

All that activity -- and cash -- is attracting some big-money investors to a field once populated by mom-and-pop operations.

Global investor-backed chains are buying out independents, and some deep-pocketed start-ups are building their own FBOs -- or "fixed-base operators," as they are known in industry jargon.

Come winter 2007, the two long-standing local FBOs, Dolphin Aviation and Jones Aviation, will have a new competitor, Rectrix Aerodrome Centers.

The Massachusetts-based company founded by a Bird Key resident will spend $15 million on 160,000 square feet of hangar space and a pilot and passenger service center.

"There'll be nothing like it in the country," Rectrix President Richard Cawley said.

Rectrix is setting up most of the hangar space, 115,000 square feet, as "hangarminiums." Cawley said he has sold three-quarters of the space.

Rectrix also will have charter service and host fractional ownership programs. Cawley is most excited about the plush reception area featuring a conference room and library.

The new FBOs tend to boast luxurious facilities, but their main source of income is the same as any other: pumping fuel.

That means they need planes in the air. The Federal Aviation Administration expects a 9.8 percent average annual increase in fuel consumption by small jets through 2017. However, that forecast is based on the sale of a new type of very light jets, or microjets. It also assumes corporate demand for private jets will continue to grow.

The newcomers

Rectrix, which is the word for birds' guiding tail feathers, was started by Tom Russell, a corporate director who bought his own plane in the late 1990s.

Russell kept his plane at Dolphin Aviation. He came to realize the demand for more hangar space through mingling with other airplane owners, Cawley said.

The Rectrix team also knows that fuel has been flowing at a good clip and that Sarasota and Manatee counties have a growing number of wealthy households.

The two FBOs at Sarasota-Bradenton pumped 3.2 million gallons of fuel in 2004-2005. One expert said that amount of fuel flow could allow three operators to survive, but it is remains to be seen who will capture future growth.

Dolphin Aviation, which serves most of the jet traffic now, stands to lose the most.

Owner Ron Ciaravella, an airport tenant since 1969, opposed Rectrix's approval as an FBO in January 2005. Ciaravella said at the time that he could lose more than one-third of his business.

Ciaravella now says he expects the arrival of Rectrix to draw more attention to the airport, increasing business for everyone.

"You may not get the same level of growth when there's a third FBO," he said.

Dolphin saw its fuel flow increase 80 percent from 1999 to 2004.

Dolphin pumped 999,433 gallons in the 1999 fiscal year. The number increased every year through the 2004 fiscal year to 1.8 million gallons.

Business travel is driving the growth nationwide, but in Sarasota, the activity comes from personal wealth and recreation, Ciaravella said.

Wondering just how many people in the Sarasota area can afford to travel on private jets?

Consider that one financial services firm found that Sarasota County is home to 24,056 households, 16 percent of the total, with a net worth of at least $1 million.

Ciaravella said his growth followed the housing boom. People flew in to use their third or fourth homes, and construction industry managers flew from site to site.

Although home sales are falling, no one expects Sarasota to lose the luster that has attracted a greater number of wealthy residents.

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