A five-star stopover | VailDaily.com

A five-star stopover

Veronica Whitney
The Vail Valley Jet Center in Gypsum provides services for its clients as if they were already in Vail.

No, it isn’t the Ritz-Carlton, Bachelor Gulch. It’s the Vail Valley Jet Center, a exclusive “fixed base operator” for the privileged passengers and pilots of private jets.

“I’m totally blown away,” says Jimmy Barrier arriving in his private plane 10 minutes ago. “We were supposed to go to Aspen, but we were diverted to this airport. It’s so great, I decided I’m going to leave the plane here and drive to Aspen.”

Barrier, 60, of Seattle is browsing the gift shop looking for a present for his wife. Since he bought his plane last year, a Pilatus PC 12, Barrier says he has travelled across the country for work and fun.

“This is the best FBO I’ve ever been to,” he says, beaming. “You walk in and there’s the piano, the cookies, even pet treats – and everybody is smiling. Palm Springs has a nice one, but this one is better.”

It’s Sunday at noon and 115 planes are parked at the Vail Valley Jet Center. Several are being serviced to leave; others are waiting comfortably in heated hangars. The jet center has four hangars totalling 110,000 square feet. These hangars look like the most expensive car showrooms – but with planes instead of cars.

“We’ve taken the philosophy of the lodges at Beaver Creek and brought it to the airport,” says Bryan Burns, president of the Vail Valley Jet Center. “From furnishings to the piano player. Our clients expect that. It all comes down to one thing: guest experience.

“I’ve worked in this business for 20 years, and this is the best FBO I’ve ever worked at. We are the first and the last impression.”

One of a kind

Passengers aren’t the only ones pampered at the Vail Valley Jet Center. Pilots have a special lounge with big couches and a TV. They also have a “quiet room,” similar to those in a spa, with dim lighting and is sound-proofing.

Then there’s Mary Anne Divine, a concierge from Gypsum, who works almost exclusively making hotel reservations for the pilots, helping them with transportation issues or just telling them what they can do in the Vail Valley.

“Most passengers know what they want to do,” Divine says. “But the pilots sometimes need more direction. They don’t do anything out of the ordinary. They like skiing, snowmobiling or horseback riding.”

Some passengers, however, have more extravagant demands, says Darren Sisson, owner of Jetstream Seasoning, a catering company based at the jet center that prepares meals for the flights.

“Usually, there are pets on the flights, and a lot of passengers get cat or dog baskets and they want Evian (French bottled water) in them,” says Sisson as he prepares a seafood platter with lobster and Alaskan smoked salmon for a flight.

“Sometimes, people want a mix: chicken fingers and caviar,” says Jeffrey Kennedy, Sisson’s partner. “Other times, they want a bottle of wine that you could only find in New York City, or maybe Vail, but here we are in Gypsum.”

Jetstream Seasoning prepares between 12 to 20 meals a day, and prices range from $30 to $100 per person, depending on what they request, Sisson says.

“Sometimes it takes a lot of time to find the products,” he says. “When they request caviar they want to have it in a special bowl with a mother-of-pearl spoon.”

“Last summer, the king of Jordan flew into the airport and we had to go to Denver to get the chicken from a Muslim farmer,” Sisson says with a grin.

“A lot of their requests aren’t easy to find on short notice. Eighty percent of this business is showing up to work; you never know when you’ll be called to prepare something that isn’t scheduled.”

Pilot’s delight

Pilot Jim Moe is getting ready for his 1 p.m. departure to Houston. Moe, 59, a veteran pilot of 40 years who flies a $38 million Gulfstream for a Texas’ oil company, comes to the Vail Valley 10 times a year.

“This facility is top notch,” says Moe, who has flown to Paris, London, Africa and South America with the corporate jet. “Although these FBOs are an American phenomenon, the Vail Valley Jet Center is one of the best from all over the world. For us (pilots), FBOs are like a gas station, where you fill your needs.”

Because their requirements are different from commercial pilots, Moe says, the better service they get at the airport, the better.

“We take care of everything- the flight plan, we load the bags, we order teh food,” he says. “A good FBO is one-stop shopping, and this one is like that.”

The jet center can handle everything from one-engine turbo-props to Boeing 757s. In the past years, Paul Allen of Microsoft and Bill Gates have landed at the center with their corporate Boeings.

“Aspen is the place for celebrities to be seen,” Burns says. “People come here because they don’t want to be seen.”

Celebrities who have flown into the jet center include Gloria Estefan, Jerry Seinfeld and several pro football players, Burns says. Vice President Dick Cheney and former Vice President Al Gore also have passed through the Vail Valley Jet Center.

“Sometimes, we don’t even know who is coming because a limo would pick the passenger up by the plane; we don’t even see them,” Burns says. “We treat everybody in the same way.”

Burns describes the Vail Valley as a family resort destination rather than a place for celebrities. A lot of his customers are second- or third-home owners who have recently bought a plane, or at least a fractional ownership.

“Our industry is driven by one thing – time is money,” he says. “The first-class passenger is fed up with delays at the airports.”

In the past five years, he says, the growth has been in the fractional market, where somebody signs, for example, a five-year contract to fly 100 hours a year.

Allen and a group of investors with ties to the Vail area bought the jet center in 1997 after the previous owners became involved in a lawsuit with Eagle County over commercial airline business. Allen and his partners now have a long-term lease, until 2046, with the county on 14 acres.

“While the facilities at Vail Valley Jet Center are in a class with the best in the world, our employees are the real key to the company’s success,” says Jim Allen, chairman and one of the owners of the jet center. “Most of our employees know the names of our customers and they often know the names of their pets.”


Customs coming to the jet center

U.S. Customs authorities from Denver soon will come to Eagle County to inspect the possible site for a customs agent, Eagle County officials say.

Authorities already have agreed with a request from Eagle County to supply a customs agent, who initially would work at the Vail Valley Jet Center.

“Before we finalize any agreement, they need to visit the airport to do a site inspection,” says county Attorney Diane Mauriello.

In 2001, approximately 350 private planes had to clear customs somewhere else before landing at the Vail Valley Jet Center, says James Allen, chairman of the jet center.

“That’s why we asked the county to apply for customs,” Allen says. “We offer to underwrite the program for five years. This will be another service we can provide to our customers.”

Currently, planes coming from outside the United States must add a stop to clear customs before landing at the jet center.

Initially, the customs service in Eagle County will serve private aviation – not commercial airlines carrying passengers – and likely involve just one customs agent, Mauriello says. The agent will be working at the old airport terminal next to the jet center.

“Another benefit of having customs is profits from refueling planes on international flights,” Allen says.

The nearest airports with customs are Denver International Airport, Centennial Airport in Colorado Springs and Jefferson County Airport.

Jet Center facts

Number of departures and arrivals per year – 20,000

Number of passengers per year – 60,000

Number of international flights per year – 350

Employees: High season, 48; low season, 36.

Most planes at one time: More than 250 a day over President’s Day weekend.

Fees: Average is $50 a night for parking outside and $150 in the heated hangars; the biggest planes pay as much as $400 a night.

Number of planes that reside at the airport year-round: 37

– Source: Vail Valley Jet Center

Veronica Whitney can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 454, or at vwhitney@vaildaily.com.

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