Charter, Private Plane Business Up at Sarasota-Bradenton Int'l Airport

For every commercial flight that takes off from Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport daily, seven private or charter flights depart.

Charter and private plane business is growing nationwide, spurred by an unwillingness by those who can afford it to wait in long lines for airport security, general aviators say.

Fractional ownership or time sharing is one of the fastest-growing areas of general aviation, accounting for up to 60 percent of charter business locally at the airport, SRQ in federal aviation lingo.

International charter business was up 278 percent at SRQ in 2004, and up 134 percent in the first quarter of 2005.

Local general aviation firms Dolphin, Jones and Rectrix are expanding at SRQ to prepare for a growing market.

For $150, a charter pilot can have a customs official come out to the plane and inspect it, saving passengers a long wait in serpentine lines.

"This is a luxury business," said Ron Ciaravella, president of Dolphin Aviation. "It's just about money. You get special handling. Convenience, speed and comfort are key."

Dolphin has eight hangars under construction at SRQ in addition to 13 it already owns. Construction is scheduled for completion by August.

Rectrix Aviation Inc. is planning to build a 100,000-square-foot structure at the airport following approval to operate as a fixed-base operator there.

And Jones Aviation expanded its lease-hold by eight acres and plans to build a new hangar in addition to the 12 it operates.

Expansion at SRQ reflects an industry-wide trend, said Fred Piccolo, executive director at the airport.

"Given the high growth, especially in high-end residences, people who own $1 million to $2 million condos for second homes have a tendency to own aircraft," Piccolo said.

Instead of buying private jets, some corporations buy portions of fractional ownership companies, allowing access to a number of different planes.

"So if the Learjet isn't available that day, they can use the Gulfstream," Piccolo said. "It gives them flexibility without having to own the whole aircraft."

The airport, which earns revenue partly from leasing land to its fixed-base operators, also earns a nickel for every gallon of gas they pump.

Averaging $3.50 to $4 a gallon, jet fuel is a different animal from auto fuel. There's no such thing as self-serve.

Smaller volume in sales compared with motor fuel helps keep the price up, Ciaravella said.

But that's peanuts compared to the $3.5 million to $60 million it costs to buy a new Cessna Citation, Beech or Learjet.

Prices for storing aircraft at Dolphin range from $250 per month for part of a hangar to $6,000 a month, depending on size of the equipment.

Refueling is the biggest source of revenue at Jones, according to Fred Longhi, chief flight instructor there.

"One morning in April, we pumped 11,000 gallons of jet fuel before noon," Longhi said.

At any given time, 40 to 50 aircraft are parked on Jones' ramp, with corporate-shared jets a significant part of the business.

"Fractional ownership has become such a booming thing," Longhi said. "They're all over our ramp."

General aviation accounted for about 300 take-offs and landings per day at SRQ in February, according to Piccolo. Daily commercial air carriers, by comparison, accounted for 42.

General aviation accounted for less than 7 percent of the airport's $15 million revenue stream last year, Piccolo said. About half the airport's total revenue stream comes from commercial airlines. Concessions, gift shops, real estate ventures and auto rentals constitute the balance.

The airport owns 130 small hangars for small planes.

How competitive is general aviation at SRQ?

"We're all after the same business," Ciaravella said.