Chicago Upstart

May 8, 2001

Chicago Upstart

North American Jet is making its mark, and significant investment

By John F. Infanger, Editorial Director

May 2001

Ken Ross, president, North American Jet

WHEELING, IL — Ken Ross, president of North American Jet at Palwaukee Municipal Airport, projected it would take 18 months to sell a million gallons of fuel at his fixed base operation, opened here just over a year ago. It took 12, he says — indicative of the growth the FBO has experienced as it goes after Chicago’s corporate traffic. Ross and his partner are also investing in the facilities, with a final tally of some $7 million after expansion this year.

North American’s Palwaukee FBO is its second, with a sister facility to the north at Kenosha Regional Airport. The two operations allow NAJ to effectively serve the Chicago-Milwaukee corporate corridor.
North American Jet's two locations: Chicago-Palwaukee (top) and Kenosha (WI) Regional Airport

But it is Palwaukee that is the proven performer for attracting corporate aircraft, the perennial leader in the region. Prior to North Ameri-can’s arrival, corporates were primarily served by Priester Aviation. The Priester family once owned the airport and sold it in 1986 to the sponsor cities of Wheeling and Mt. Prospect.
If there is such a thing as a precocious FBO, North American qualifies. Ross talks of his company’s success as though it was expected. He talks with the same matter-of-fact confidence of the difficulty of getting established at Palwaukee, with its airfield history and nervous citizens who have voted down a runway extension.
Though an FBO newcomer, Ross came to the industry as a long-time user, a pilot who grew up in Chicagoland and a user of Palwaukee. And he has tasted success as an attorney, one who specialized in aviation. He became a full-time FBO manager after opening the Palwaukee facility.
"Our philosophy is to be a full-service provider," explains Ross. "We have built a facility that offers first-class services to corporate clients, but we also serve pistons, which is why we are seriously looking at an opportunity we have to put in some T-hangars in the northeast quadrant of the airport."
NAJ’s present leasehold (25 years; 25-year option) covers six acres on Palwaukee’s northwest quadrant, and after expansion the facilities will feature 70,000 square feet of office/han-gar space and some 175,000 square feet of ramp, according to Ross.

User Becomes An FBO
Ross, like many FBOs, got into the business by first buying a hangar — at Kenosha — and then adding a fuel farm. Once the FBO was in place, the owners looked for another location nearer to the lucrative Chicago marketplace.
One option was at Waukegan, says Ross, which is located further north of the city. "Waukegan was an opportunity, but when we did our analysis — and we did quite an extensive analysis of the various airports around here — Waukegan has very nice facilities but it is a little difficult to get to," he says. "Driving from the north shore (of Chicago) it takes maybe 10 or 15 minutes more to go to Kenosha on the expressway.
"Palwaukee is much more centrally located, it’s one of the busiest general aviation airports in the country and it was a better fit with our long-term strategic plans."

Looking Ahead
In time, Ross projects that North American Jet will be a company of three or four "strategically located" FBOs. Besides fuel sales, he targets charter/aircraft management and maintenance as the best prospects for growth. He suggests that there may also be some serious opportunities in the near future with a nationwide charter alliance and teaming up with a manufacturer of one of the new age GA aircraft under development. "We think the opportunities lie in strategic partnering," he says.
Yet, he remains a bit coy beyond saying he is looking into such ventures. First, he says, the company must focus on being the best at today’s core FBO business.
"Kenosha Airport has been growing slowly, but we see that airport as an opportunity to establish ourselves close to Milwaukee," he says. "We look at that airport as growing.
"Right now, it’s been a great location to supplement Palwaukee. We have grown so fast here at Palwaukee that our managed airplanes are kept in Kenosha. We don’t have space right now to base them solely here."
The Palwaukee expansion was set to break ground in May, and Ross says the new hangar space is 65 percent pre-leased.
"Our maintenance companies are growing," he continues. "We have our (FAR Part)145 repair station certificate for the Cessna 500 series, and will shortly add the 600 series. We have the G-II on there and are adding the G-IV and the Hawker and Falcon series aircraft.
"So we need the additional space so that we can meet our clients’ needs."

A Need for FAA Inspectors

Gerald (Jerry) Wyatt serves as operations director for North American Jet. He is a former Federal Aviation Administration aviation safety/principal operations inspector.

Wyatt, 47, calls inadequate the number of FAA inspectors available to industry today, as well as their qualifications.
At FAA some eleven years, Wyatt brought to the job an ATP type rating, an A&P technician rating, was a Part 141 CFI, and had experience working with airlines, corporates, and in airport management.
"FAA today contracts out for many inspections, and I think that should be the FAA’s job to ensure safety," he says. "It’s had an impact on our (Part) 135 business. If you need a checkride, it requires an FAA inspector with type rating, and it can take six months or more."