Aircraft sales company moves into the FBO business and looks to turn around an Indianapolis reliever
By John F. Infanger, Editorial Director
MT. COMFORT, IN — Pat Robinson, 36, has worked successfully in flight training and later aircraft sales around the Indianapolis area since college. In 1999, he and wife Danielle purchased Angel Air, a fixed base operator at the Mt. Comfort Airport reliever east of the city. With a new 20-year lease negotiated, they’re positioning to change the fortunes of this sleepy airfield.
Explains Pat Robinson, "Because we have been on a lot of airports, we’ve had the opportunity to learn the FBO business, but as an aircraft sales company our goal was to get there, do our buying or selling, and leave.
"When we walked into the FBO business here we were fairly ill-equiped to know what department needed what help. This FBO is virtually 20 years old now; there have been two different operators here. One was a chain, Aero Services; they built this building with the idea that every corporate airplane was going to move out here once it was built. Aero Services ran it until about 1989.
"We knew that we couldn’t rely on aircraft sales for our retirement. The aircraft sales business is one of the most profitable pieces of a GA airport, but it’s not an asset-building business. I don’t have a business I can sell. So we started looking pretty hard to develop some kind of asset-based structure."
Today, Indy Aero Services, Inc., is the full-service FBO, with some 30 employees, full and part time, and Indy Aero, Inc., is the Robinsons’ ongoing aircraft sales firm. The airport encompasses some 2,000 acres, with primary tenant Indy Aero occupying eight acres, four to six of which are developable under the current leasehold. An AWOS was recently installed and was expected to be commissioned in early fall.
The FBO is currently in the final stages of getting its Part 135 charter certificate. A partnership was created with two A&P technicians — Mike Baughman and George Miller — who were striking out on their own at the same time. Baughman and Miller brought with them piston, turbine, and rotary experience. Indy Aero is a certified service center for Enstrom.
Explains Robinson, "We offered to let them run our shop in partnership with us, so they have a vested interest in helping build this business. That was probably the smartest thing we’ve done. We brought in two guys that had considerable experience right on up through turbine aircraft who were able to walk into the shop and treat it as their own. A year later, the shop’s doing well. We’re up to six mechanics."
Mt. Comfort Airport is owned and operated by the Indianapolis Airport Authority, which oversees International Airport, and GA airports Eagle Creek, Metropolitan, Mt. Comfort, and Speedway, which is slated to be replaced with a new reliever west of downtown at Hendricks County.
"It’s an interesting scenario in Indianapolis now because of the three FBOs in town at the reliever airports — Eagle Creek, Metro, and Mt. Comfort — we’ve all worked together in some capacity," says Robinson.
The airport here, built in 1979, features crosswind runways of 5,500 and 3,900 feet and 110 t-hangars which the authority operates. In all there are some 140 based aircraft, almost totally piston.
"With all due respect to the other operators," says Robinson, "the reliever airports in Indianapolis, historically, haven’t sought out private owners or corporations to build their hangars. They tend to (let them) go to the airport authority.
"We have a good airport authority; they have been very supportive of us. But there is a lot of red tape to get a corporate hangar built wherever you build it, and I think we as an FBO have to work on developing a package so that we can sell space to corporate aviation — because we are a standing FBO. We understand the hurdles of getting through negotiations. I think if we take a role as an FBO to help people build their own private hangars, we’re going to see more come out here.
"Indianaapolis in the past 20 years has grown north, south, and west — not east. But there are a lot of things starting to happen out here, and it is industry. It is coming this way. So, I think we’re in the right spot for future growth."
BELIEVING IN FULL SERVICE
Robinson says he is fully committed to developing a full-service general aviation facility — not just a property manager and fuel reseller.
"An FBO means providing all of the required services to the general aviation community, and I think those services are maintenance, rental and flight training, fuel, charter, storage, and management. An FBO, to serve its customers, has to provide maintenance. If you want to develop future clientele, you have to provide flight training and rental. Everybody wants the fuel business -— that’s easy.
"I’m still new at this; but I believe we’re here to provide a service, and I don’t believe in the fractionalization of it.
"I believe that long-term, a reasonably sized FBO on a nice airport like this, we should be able to provide good flight training and good, well-maintaned airplanes. I need to find the employees to make it happen, but I know I can make it happen. I think the flight school is so complementary -— the flight school buys maintenance from you, it buys fuel from you, it has extra pilots around that the sales department can use. It’s not real profitable, but I think a flight school’s really important."
He agrees that fuel sales, too, are vital to the long-term viability of the FBO. In its first year, Indy Aero has pumped a low of 10,000 gallons a month to a high of 21,000 gallons. "Our fuel sales are slowly going up," says Robinson. "We have invested in refuelers and personnel — more than can be justified by the numbers, plus a new Lektro tug."
An unexpected profit center has arisen with incoming 135 freight operators — Convairs, Beech 18s, and Learjets.
"They don’t want to deal with Indianapolis International’s traffic and congestion. It’s helped us sell another 3,000 to 4,000 gallons a month, and for the fuel business that can be the difference to profitability," says Robinson.
To develop the freight business, which primarily links just-in-time inventory to automobile manufacturers, Robinson hired Jim Sparks, a non-aviation sales management veteran. Sparks has solicited business from some 400 operators within a 700-mile radius of Indianapolis and is exploring the potential of available facilities at International Airport.
He has overseen the purchase of two forklifts, a van, and a freight truck to accommodate the aircraft, and expects to add to the company’s ground fleet by year’s end.