A New, Executive Thunderbird

Dec. 6, 2012
Experiencing growth even through the downturn, Thunderbird Aviation amplifies its focus on full-service corporate aircraft support

Established in 1962, Minnesota-Based Thunderbird Aviation is celebrating it's 50th year in the business. With two locations - one at Flying Cloud Airport in Eden Prairie, and another at Crystal Airport in Crystal, MN, flight training and professional pilot development has always been a core focus here at Thunderbird. After all, the company brought Piper to the area during its formative years during the 1960s.

The company's primary operation has always been at the Flying Cloud Airport (FCM), a GA airport serving single-engine piston, twin-engine piston, turboprop, and corporate turbojet aircraft. The airport is owned and operated by the Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC). With three runways, Flying Cloud is classified as a 'minor' airport by the Metropolitan Council and is one of six reliever airports in the Twin Cities metropolitan area.

Comments Chris Cape, Thunderbird GM and director of operations, "Our core franchise has always been flight training, but we feel as an FBO, we have to be diversified. So, since 2005 and 2006 at both Crystal and Flying Cloud, we wanted to stay true to our core flight training services, but also provide all of the other pillars that make an FBO successful.

"By being diversified, we are better able to weather economic cyclicality that exists in the market."

Managing The Downturn

During the economic recession of the past few years, Flying Cloud Airport took a hit, but business-wise, Thunderbird has not been down - it's been up. Flying Cloud is a highly competitive environment; there are five FBOs on the field.

Says Cape, "I would venture to guess that our competitors out here were all down during the downturn, and are still down for the most part.

"The business has to be diversified; when the market started to crash in 2008, we really diversified our model to the point that, for example, aircraft rental was a huge part of our business – we went out and started doing more aerial services. We now work with state and government agencies and fly forestry contracts for the Department of Natural Resources. That increases our utilization of aircraft.

"The other FBOs do business a little different. We are now in the mode that we are doing everything; diversifying our service offering is very important to us. When one area is tough, we can focus on another area."

Thunderbird recently joined the Tecnam dealership network and entered the light sport aircraft marketplace to reach the recreational sport customer.

Remarks president Nancy Grazzini-Olson "We recognize a lot of people are seeing downturns; our philosophy has been to work harder and make it happen. We have been really fortunate; we haven’t had that downturn at all. Aircraft rental was probably hit the hardest, but everything else has been up."

A New, Executive Terminal

"When the economy was getting tougher a few years ago, and we were really focusing our flight training and professional piloting at the Crystal location, we took a close look at the Flying Cloud operation," relates Grazzini-Olson.

"The airport extended the runway in 2009, and we always knew once that was complete, we would change what we were doing there. We decided to put in a new facility; we were changing the focus of our company. Today at Flying Cloud, we are focused on providing fuel and servicing aircraft."

The new FBO facility is just shy of 8,000-square feet, in addition to the completely remodeled existing maintenance hangar; the investment was some $2 million. Thunderbird acquired an extension on its lease, and that enabled it to finance the new facility. With options, the FBO now has a 25-year lease at Flying Cloud. The company also added an administration building.

Remarks Cape, "We were very forward thinking in the design when considering security. If TSA were to say we have to have secured ramps, we would be ready. Every employee now as a badge and we have implemented access control features."

Adds Grazzini-Olson, "We have a very nice pilot lounge and sleeping area. Our lobby is very nice, and there is a complete view of the runway and the airport from that area. We also have a nice classroom setting and pilot training area.

"What we did was say, let’s take our business and let’s really focus it differently. Let’s take the Flying Cloud location and make this a state-of-the-art full-service FBO able to accommodate corporate aircraft. Let’s not lose what we are doing with flight training and for the recreational people, but let’s totally change it and really expand to cover all areas of service … and build a facility to meet those expectations.

"That’s what we did … everybody worked well with us from the MAC all the way down, and we are happy to say today that it worked. Business is there, and we pulled it off."

The new facility became operational on October 3rd, and already, things are going very well. Hangar facilities are full, and transient jet fuel sales is one of the largest parts of the fuel business at Thunderbird right now - and that remains on the increase. 

"Percentage-wise, we have probably doubled our jet fuel sales in the last couple years. Now with the opening, we are already seeing another doubling of those sales – just in the last few weeks with the new operation in place," says Grazzini-Olson. " ... and we are working on gaining market share."

Adds Cape, "For planes based at this airport, we are the largest 100LL provider here; at least 70 percent of the planes based here are buying that from us.

"The runway is at 5,000-feet now, which opened up a lot more possibilities with regard to corporate traffic. Really what we saw here was light jets and down; and now with the runway extension, we are seeing large cabin corporate traffic.

"That is clearly growing; people are coming in here now that they can; traffic is up at Flying Cloud Airport."

Cape relates that the company wants to grow market share in more lines of business, and with the new facility, Thunderbird has the capability to expand. "For example, our aircraft management business is relatively small as a percentage of our operation … under 10 percent," explains Cape. "So we look to grow those types of businesses; with our old facility, we literally ran out of room."

Says Grazzini-Olson, "We are really a corporate FBO, but we have not forgotten our roots. We don’t want to forget where we came from, but we have expanded during tough economic times, and we are happy with how we are poised in the market today.

About the Author

Brad McAllister | Editor