By Clayton Moore
Upgrading a major fixed base operation is a challenge under the best of circumstances. But try bringing home a $500,000 renovation at one of the busiest airports in the country—just in time for this year’s Super Bowl.
That was the challenge facing Matthew Wright, the new general manager at Atlantic Aviation at Phoenix Deer Valley Airport (DVT), just a stone’s throw away from major business and leisure destinations in Scottsdale and Phoenix. The construction process gave him some worries as the project was coming to a head, but the party the FBO held to celebrate the football championship proved that the rewards were worth the effort.
With more than 300 safe takeoffs and landings that day alone, the new Atlantic facility proved its effectiveness during the big game.
“Super Bowl weekend was an unqualified success,” Wright said. “It met all of our expectations and couldn’t have gone any better. We had the best location anyone could pick to bring a private plane in for this event. We were the closest airport outside of the Federal Aviation Administration’s temporary flight restriction for the game. We brought in the best of the best from Atlantic in terms of line staff, service personnel and equipment.”
It’s well-deserved praise, even though Wright doesn’t mention the big screen television and barbecue that he and his team set up for pilots and crews. But all that effort is proving to have an impact on Atlantic’s valuable position in one of the hottest aviation markets in the country
Wright, an attorney from Nebraska, made the move to Arizona working for Westwind Aviation, now part of Atlantic’s FBO chain.
“Luckily, the practice of law gives you an excellent background, no matter what career path you end up taking,” Wright said. “I didn’t love what I was doing at the time; I’m glad I made the change. The pay wasn’t always so great, but working on the line and on the ramp really did teach me how the business works. I was fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time, which is what life is about a lot of the time.”
After a short stint with Mesa Airlines, he returned to Westwind shortly before its acquisition by Atlantic. Acknowledging his understanding of the industry and sound business acumen, Atlantic appointed Wright general manager at a crucial time in the FBO’s evolution.
The first order of business was reestablishing a firm relationship with its customers after the FBO’s tumultuous recent ownership. Trajen first acquired Westwind in early 2006. Weeks later, Macquarie Infrastructure Company purchased the entire Trajen network, merging the FBOs with its own chain, Atlantic Aviation.
“The first few months were difficult,” Wright admitted. “It didn’t help our customer base here at the airport to feel comforted because they didn’t know Atlantic. They’d been pleased with Westwind, then suddenly it was Trajen, and a few weeks later, it changed again. Thirteen-hundred based tenants don’t care about international mergers; they just want to make sure they’re getting the most competitive prices for fuel and hangar space.”
Opening lines of communication with Atlantic’s tenants is important to Wright.
“We’re not going to lose sight of the importance that the base tenants and flight schools bring to Deer Valley,” he said. “Those are the people who make us one of the busiest general aviation airports in the country. We took the time to talk one-on-one with our customers. We ran promotions here at the FBO to let our tenants know we appreciated them. We try to be very involved with the Deer Valley Pilots Association. Just because we’re now part of a big corporation doesn’t mean we’re going to forget them.”
Atlantic and Wright recognize the need to tap into the expanding business aviation and private jet market. While about 35 percent of Atlantic’s sales come from low-lead aviation fuel, the burgeoning market for corporate aircraft, including jet fuel, is too large to ignore.
The city is positioning itself to tap into the business market as well. Having seen the success and impact of facilities like Scottsdale Airport (SDL), the city of Phoenix has adopted a new master plan for DVT that promises to continue to support GA and promote Deer Valley as a viable alternative to other regional airports.
“The plan accommodates the fact that we’re a busy, piston-burning GA airport, but also builds in a substantial amount of growth for corporate aviation,” Wright explained. “The idea is to segregate local piston traffic from the corporate traffic, by moving GA to the north side; the south side of the airport will be dedicated to corporate traffic. Our parallel runways make that very doable.”
DVT has also recently completed construction on a new control tower. Plans are in the works to upgrade both runways, including lengthening and strengthening one to accommodate larger aircraft.
“We need to not lose sight of where we came from, which includes the support we enjoy from our field tenants,” Wright said. “They’ve been and will continue to be a key part of our business. But the field is tapped out in the number of tenants it’s able to handle. Our growth is going to come from building additional hangars and housing corporate turbine traffic. We’re strategically located and the facilities are all being upgraded. I believe people will start to figure out that there’s a lot of potential here.”
The FBO’s own upgrades are significant. Atlantic’s half-million dollar investment in upgrades at its Deer Valley facility started with a complete remodel of its 4,000-square-foot primary facility.
“To say we were stuck in the 1970s would be giving us more credit than we deserved,” Wright laughed. “Our facilities were in dire need of an update. There’s a lot of money in this valley and we’re trying to target those customers who are flying into the Scottsdale Air Center and Landmark Aviation. It was obvious to us that we couldn’t attract those customers with our former facility.”
The FBO started demolishing its building in October 2007. Its general contractor, Fleming West, promised a complete front-to-back remodel and completed the renovations on Jan. 30.
“We never shut down, but there were definitely some growing pains during the construction process,” Wright said. “We had to move the front desk three times and the staff was working on bare concrete floors a lot.”
Within the four walls of the Atlantic complex, every interior wall was torn down and a brand new interior rebuilt from scratch. New walls, paint, tiles and ceiling give the facility a sleek, modern look, while brand new furnishings accent both customer waiting areas and a high-tech pilot’s lounge, outfitted with leather recliners, plasma televisions and a hand-painted mural of a Cessna Citation Excel. Outside the facility, a redesigned entrance leads to a landscaped courtyard with a fountain, where patrons can enjoy the Phoenix weather while waiting for their aircraft to arrive.
“Not only did we clean everything up, but it also flows much better from a traffic and efficiency point of view,” Wright said. “You walk into the lobby and you have a spectacular view of the ramp and our new control tower, which is impressive to the customers who come here.”
Wright said Atlantic’s facility at Deer Valley now totals upwards of 40,000 square feet. Its two buildings house the FBO as well as 22,000 square feet of hangar space, encompassing 8,500 square feet on two floors dedicated to the Westwind School of Aeronautics and another 4,000 square feet leased to based tenants.
Unlike most other Atlantic facilities, the DVT base also offers maintenance and repair operations as an authorized Cessna Service Center.
“We like having airplanes on the field, but even more than that, we like airplanes that fly regularly,” Wright said. “We’re one of the few locations offering maintenance service, and we’re probably one of the best Caravan service centers in the country.”
He said the only service the FBO doesn’t offer is de-icing—”for obvious reasons.”
Staffing consists of 36 employees, including customer service representatives, mechanics and line service specialists. While Atlantic maintains a strong working relationship with its general managers at each of its 69 locations, Wright says a nice balance exists between support and guidance from the home office.
“The corporate culture is one in which they really allow an individual to prosper,” he said.
Within certain parameters, managers are allowed to make individual decisions affecting his or her base.
“The procedures imposed here improve the safety of our customers and maximize the customer service environment,” he said. “This provides us with a competitive edge over other FBOs, with programs like Atlantic Awards. They had an unqualified commitment to making sure our remodel was done properly and that we got the accommodations that project the image that Atlantic wants to demonstrate to the aviation and business community.”
The other piece of the puzzle is Atlantic’s relationship with the authorities that govern DVT, currently the 22nd busiest airport in the U.S. Despite weighty responsibilities, Wright says the airport’s management is committed to helping businesses like his prosper.
“There’s a strong partnership between the airport authority and the FBOs on this field,” Wright said. “Our airport manager, Gary Mascaro, really understands that as the airport authority goes, so goes the FBOs on the field, and vice versa. The more fuel we sell and the more tenants we attract, the more revenue we generate for the airport and the city. In terms of growing, the FBO makes necessary accommodations for events that attract thousands of visitors to the city.”
Although Atlantic has no current plans to expand its base at Deer Valley, Wright says he looks forward to more space in the future.
“Presently, we don’t have enough square footage for the demand we have, but I certainly have visions of additional hangars here,” he said. “Our leasehold is large, and we’re tied in with the city for the long term. We don’t have any concrete plans at this time, but it’s one of my general goals as the GM of this facility to expand our capacity in terms of hangar space.”
The bottom line is that Atlantic Aviation aims to not only get bigger, but also better. Wright said he’s a firm believer in the philosophy of continuous improvement.
“You can always get better at what you do,” he said. “We have our eyes on growth, and we’re looking towards the future.”
For more information, visit [http://www.atlanticaviation.com/locations].