A New Footprint at Teterboro

July 23, 2009
First Aviation Services making a push to be a major player in the Northeast market

It used to be the smaller player on the Teterboro (NJ) Airport block, known then as Beechcraft East and serving primarily piston tenants. Today, First Aviation Services, owned by Goldman Sachs, is a predominant player on one of the most active general aviation reliever airports in the system, just across the river from Manhattan. FAS occupies some 24 acres of prime real estate, has a 150,000-gallon fuel farm onsite, and has invested some $75 million in facilities, including three 40,000-square foot hangars and a 30,000-square foot terminal. It is open 24/7 and offers maintenance capabilities that managing director Bill Thomas says give the fixed base operator a competitive advantage. The company is in the midst of a major marketing push, despite or because of the down economy.

Thomas is a retired Navy aviator who upon retiring worked as the operations manager for Johnson Controls, which at that time held the management contract for running the Teterboro airfield. It’s how he got the recommendation to head up First Aviation Services by the previous owner when Goldman Sachs took possession.

He took over heading up the FAS operation less than a year ago. In the interim he worked with Northwest Airlines in Memphis, was director of operations and training for the Air Transport Association, and was the CEO of an optical trade association in Washington, D.C.

This is his first experience operating an FBO, about which he says, “The good part about that is I’m not coming in with any preconceived notions of the best way to do it. I’m able to come in with my experience in other businesses and really concentrate on efficiency and effectiveness of how the thing should work. I’ve got some of the same employees that I knew back when I was at Teterboro.

“My philosophy really is, surround myself with good people and take care of them. Happy employees serve the customers very well.”

It was the previous owner who recommended him to Goldman Sachs to run the facility. Yet, he says, “My philosophy is kind of completely different from the previous owners. They kind of ruled with an iron fist. My philosophy is you explain to an employee why it’s important to do a job; what’s required of them; and then you give him the authority and responsibility to do that job.

“For the most part the employees have really taken on that philosophy and have grown since I’ve been there less than a year into a service-minded attitude.”

He’s also implemented other policies which he says are reaping benefits. “I changed a bit the philosophy of how we operationally move the airplanes,” explains Thomas. “We have three color-coded lines on the ramp, so that when somebody is taxiing in we can tell them taxi in on the blue, white, or red line. We use the first line for quick-turns; we use the second and third lines for airplanes that will either be here overnight or for longer periods of time. So, we’re able to manage the ramp a bit more efficiently.

“The other thing that I did was to try and go out and market our maintenance capability, which I saw as a very important value-added. An airplane that’s sitting on the ground isn’t making money for anybody. “

Going after market share
First Aviation Services’ new high-profile location on the airfield is an advantage, says Thomas, and he has begun a new marketing campaign to get the word out.

“The facility was underutilized before I arrived,” explains Thomas. “We’d only had one tenant prior to me coming on; now we have eight. Even in this economy, we’re being pretty well accepted by the community and people are clearing leases with us. We’re maintaining a fairly good business plan with the lowest posted price on the field.

“The other really important thing is, we’re the only facility on the field that actually has a 24/7 maintenance capability. Everybody else is either call-in maintenance or they have no maintenance whatsoever.”

The Part 145 repair station specializes in Gulfstreams, Hawkers, and Citations, according to Thomas, and is currently tooling up to handle the new Falcon 7X. The company has 26 full-time technicians and operates five shifts — three shifts during the day and two shifts on the weekends.

FAS has a mix of corporate tenants and aircraft operated under aircraft management contracts by Executive Jet Management as base customers. Tradewind Aviation is also a tenant, flying scheduled charters using Cessna Grand Caravans to Nantucket (MA) Memorial Airport.

“It’s a good mix of corporate airplanes,” says Thomas. “We’re not tied to any one group.”

It’s large 40,000-square foot single-span hangars can accommodate up to five Gulfstream V aircraft each, with one building dedicated to maintenance. Its new 150,000-gallon fuel farm is onsite, another competitive advantage, according to Thomas.

“That’s really important, because the other FBOs have to go off-field to go to the fuel farms.”

Thomas recently hired general aviation marketing veteran Drew Steketee to head up his new push to get First Aviation Services on the corporate aviation map. Steketee has served in marketing roles at the General Aviation Manufacturers Association; Beech/Raytheon; the Aircraft Owners & Pilots Association; and the industry’s Be-A-Pilot campaign. He’s quite familiar with Teterboro and its high profile in the corporate arena.

About First Aviation Services new location, Steketee says, “It’s a different Teterboro experience; the place is crazy for parking for both planes and cars. He’s actually got a midfield terminal at Teterboro; he’s between the two runways and just south of the cross-field taxiway.

“He’s got an advantage there too because they built a freeway through the Meadowlands sports complex that almost comes right to the south side of Teterboro. We’re now bringing that to customers’ attention as a short cut to New York.”

The new FBO complex was built with an emphasis on security, featuring some 125 cameras and card key access that maintains a log of access for 30 days. It also has a unique tunnel through which corporate customers can go directly from their car to their aircraft without having to use the terminal.

Explains Thomas, “The best way that we serve the corporate customer is that he arrives at the field with his airplane ready; he immediately gets placed at the airplane. He doesn’t necessarily have to come in and schlep his bags in through the terminal.

“We have two 15-passenger buses parked right at the portico, which serves the limousines. The security and transportation staff receives the limo there and moves the bags and passengers directly to the bus. The bus goes through the sally port, right out to the airplane; so it’s a five-minute excursion.

“We are very efficient in that if the airplane is ready, they can go right out.”

Adds Steketee, “This is a sally port, like at a prison. In other words, it’s gated at both ends.”

According to Thomas, First Aviation Services is currently the number two supplier of fuel on the airfield, which has five fixed base operators, and accounts for some 25 percent of airport volumes. FAS pumps “between eight and ten million gallons” annually, says Thomas.

He says FAS is incrementally increasing its market share, despite the fact that overall traffic at Teterboro is down some 20-25 percent.

“The airport itself is back to 1999 levels in operations,” he says. “We’ve seen a little uptick in the past four weeks. Before that it went down and pretty much stayed flat.

“Because we’re so well situated to Manhattan, once the financial deals [on Wall Street] start we’ll be right back in the game again.”