Destination: ABIA

July 8, 1999

Destination: ABIA

Austin, TX, opens Bergstrom Int'l Airport. Here's how the move impacted day to day business operations

BY John Boyce, Contributing Editor

July 1999

AUSTIN, TX — Maybe it couldn't be characterized as saving the best for last, but it was certainly the biggest and close to the last. Richard Tapparo will be retiring soon from his position as area general manager at Signature Flight Support in Austin, TX, and his last major task was to move his FBO lock, stock, and fuel truck from Austin's Robert Mueller Airport to the converted Air Force base and the nation's newest airport, Austin-Bergstrom International Airport (ABIA).

A trip of only seven road miles, entrance to entrance, the move took months of planning by Tapparo and his staff.

"This was definitely the biggest single project (of my career)," Tapparo says. "We started planning months ago for what we were going to do and how we were going to do it."

The planning for the move itself involved the big elements such as coordinating the fueling and movement of airliners from one airport to another, down to the printing of stationery and making sure vending machines were in place and in working order.

"There are just a lot of little things you have to plan for. It takes a lot of pre-planning," Tapparo says. "From getting the Coke machines in to getting catering set up to getting your mail set up. The shuttle services for the hotels had to be arranged. Just a lot of little things. Catering turned out to be something of a problem just to get it delivered this far out."

Of course, the primary job was getting the new facility built and ready for occupancy by the new airport's planned opening date of May 1. Tapparo accomplished this, but as luck would have it he gained some extra time when the airport opening was moved to Sunday, May 23. The Signature terminal and two of the hangars were certified for occupancy by the opening and three other hangars were certified in the following week.

Richard Tapparo, right, general manager of Signature Flight Support in Austin, made the move to new facilities in the dead of night.

"First of all," Tapparo says, "we tried to get our facilities open prior to the closing of the other airport. What we did was we pushed our contractors, and we got our temporary certificate of occupancy." Consequently, he was able to start moving some non-essential equipment during the week preceding the airport's opening.

The main move took place at 1 a.m. May 23, when Signature joined the approximately 100-vehicle convoy arranged by the City of Austin to physically move equipment from Mueller to ABIA so that the airport would be operational and ready for the first commercial takeoff at 6 a.m.

"We moved all of our refuelers, air stairs, pickup trucks, and other equipment that wasn't licensed for the road," Tapparo explains. "Then we started operation about 4 o'clock in the morning on the airline side. However, we were already in operation over here."

Of primary importance to Tapparo and Signature was to keep the inconvenience of the move to their customers, particularly the tenant customers, at a minimum.

"We wanted to make this transition as transparent as possible to our customers," Tapparo says, "and we wanted it to be a good experience... Unfortunately, at Robert Mueller we had 220 aircraft based with us, the majority of which were single-engine. Out here we'll have in the area of 70 to 80 aircraft based with us. The other aircraft found homes at outlying airports...."

At the moment, Signature is unable to accommodate all of its previous tenants because the FBO went from 29 acres of ramp at Mueller to just nine at ABIA. Tapparo says he has another 25 acres that can be developed but that's in the future. Right now, the City of Austin is contemplating allowing grass tiedowns as a temporary measure to accommodate other owners who want to move to ABIA.

Signature tenants at Mueller making the move to ABIA made the move at their own convenience except that they, like all based tenants, were given 30 days during which they could come and go as they pleased from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. They had to be out permanently by June 23 or run the risk of having their property seized by the City.

"We started educating our customers back in October," Tapparo says. "We sent out letters to all of our tenants to find out who was interested in moving to the new airport and trying to keep them informed on what the situation was.

"So many didn't really think it (Mueller closing) was going to happen, and there are still some who think Mueller will remain as an airport (see sidebar). I would say there are probably nearly 50 aircraft at Mueller, and they'll be there until they kick them out.... We're going to work with them as much as we can to accommodate as many as we can."

Tapparo admits to a sort of reluctance of his own after spending 12 years at Mueller. "I was kind of in denial, too," he says with a laugh. "I just moved my desk stuff over here this morning (four days after the FBO opened at ABIA). It was in the back of my car."

Signature didn't completely leave general aviation customers at Mueller high and dry. Tapparo planned his fuel budget so that his fuel farm at Mueller was almost depleted of fuel when the airport closed. However, there was some left for GA customers. "We provide minimum service over there," Tapparo says. "It's more or less a watchdog situation. We do provide a little bit of fuel service, but we're about out of fuel; so once we're out of fuel we won't provide any more."

The new airline terminal at Austin-Bergstrom Int'l Airport

Signature has contracts with airlines in Austin to fuel aircraft and their ground support equipment. During the transfer, the airlines requested quick-turns on fueling at Mueller so that they could reposition to ABIA and be ready for operations immediately.

"We had trucks standing by at Robert Mueller so that we could give them a quick-turn, and they could reposition to this airport," Tapparo says. "...They didn't reposition all at once. I think the first aircraft repositioned at 4 or 5 p.m. Saturday and the last one to reposition was at 1 a.m. It was a pretty smooth transition."

Of the GSE refueling, Tapparo says, "We had extra people and extra equipment to keep their equipment full when they left Robert Mueller and to fill them back up when they got to the new airport so they would be ready for operations the next morning."

To get the FBO operational on time at ABIA, Tapparo arranged to move his point of sale computers and fax machines ahead of the opening. However, he says the communication installation has been something of a nightmare.

"It's a new phone system, a self-contained system," he says. "An airport Bell is what it amounts to. They did as good a job as could be expected because they had to install the airlines, the department of aviation, the FBOs. It was a tremendous amount of work, and everything was pushed down to crunch time before they could get in and do their work. We're pleased they took care of us as well as they did, but we had some glitches that we had to work through."

Tapparo was relieved of one potential headache when Signature policy dictated that all the company's FBOs have the same furniture and accessories as the new facility, making it unnecessary to move furniture from Mueller. Old furniture and excess equipment at Mueller was to be sold at auction.