Jet center is one of the valley’s ‘front doors’
GYPSUM – Most of the passengers at the Eagle County Regional Airport come in through the commercial terminal. But most of the planes that land at the airport taxi up to the Vail Valley Jet Center.
The jet center handles virtually all of the general aviation planes that come into the valley, providing pilots, crews and passengers with everything from fuel to hangar space to ground transportation and more. On a busy weekend in the winter, there can be as many as 150 planes parked on the tarmac around the jet center’s offices and hangars.
Keeping that operation running this time of year requires a crew of about 40 people. And if you work at the jet center, chances are you’re going to spend some time on call. The center’s normal business hours are 6 a.m. to 9 p.m., but planes can, and do, land at all hours.
Sometimes, a pilot will radio the airport’s control tower just minutes before landing. When that call comes in, no matter what time, there will be people there to meet the plane.
The people aboard that plane usually want a ride to one of the resorts. The jet center has garage space for a few dozen clients’ personal cars, so a car might need to be taken out of the garage. Other times, a rental car or limo service is called.
With enough lead time, that car will be parked right outside the plane. Greeters and the plane’s crew will unload luggage and gear, load the car, and the passengers can be on their way.
If passengers have to wait a while, the jet center has a passenger lounge with a fireplace, comfortable chairs and sofas and an expansive view of the airport and the hillsides to the north.
The fireplace came not long after a group of partners bought the jet center business in 1998. Jet center President Paul Gordon, who’s worked at the business for nearly 20 years, said the current ownership group put several million dollars into the business almost immediately.
Over the years, that investment has included hangar space – now more than 150,000 square feet – as well as acres of “apron” space where the planes can be parked.
That hangar space is a big deal in the world of corporate jets, Gordon said.
“Everybody wants it – even though it sits empty about seven months of the year,” Gordon said.
A bit like a ski area
Like the Vail Valley’s resorts, the jet center’s business model is based mostly on a busy winter season. And those winters are busy indeed.
“The jet center facilitates the same number of aircraft in a winter that some airports do in a whole year,” said Mechelle Cappel, of Elite Limousine. “It’s fast and free and busy as all get-out in the winter – but it’s a good crazy.”
And, like the ski industry, the jet center’s guests expect more and better service than they did even a decade ago.
That’s why the Jet Center has built hangar and parking space. That’s also why the company provides services that have been cut at similar “fixed base operator” businesses.
The Jet Center’s revenue comes from fueling planes, from commercial airliners to two-seater aircraft parked on the airport’s north side. But other revenue comes from parking fees, hangar rentals, and other services. Another big part of the business is the crew of four full-time aircraft mechanics, who work on everything from engine-control systems on corporate jets that fly nearly the speed of sound to annual inspections on small planes to latrines and coffeemakers on airliners.
A lot of similar businesses don’t have mechanics any more, Gordon said.
Other businesses have also dropped their greeters, Gordon said. That makes the Jet Center stand out.
Selling the experience
Again, it’s a little like the resort business – people notice those touches. “Professional Pilot,” an industry magazine, conducts an annual reader survey of the best fixed base operators in the country. In the 2011 survey, the Vail Valley Jet Center was rated the top business of its kind in Colorado, and was fourth on the national list of independent operators.
That’s good news for the business’ marketing efforts, because, in something of a surprise, people coming to the Vail Valley don’t just fly into the county airport.
“People have the option of going to Aspen or Rifle,” Jet Center director of marketing and customer relations Jamie Roosa said. “Some people even fly into Denver, then drive up.”
So the Jet Center works to get those people to land in Eagle County, touting everything from fuel prices – about $1 per gallon less than Aspen – to relatively recent upgrades in the airports traffic-control systems. These days, the airport can land 25 planes an hour in good weather, and there’s now an upgraded instrument landing system that allows more takeoffs and landings in bad weather.
Gordon said Milton Souza, who runs the control tower, deserves much of the credit for upgrading those systems.
In the end, though, the Jet Center doesn’t greet anything like the number of passengers that come through the airport’s commercial terminal. But the people who do come through the Jet Center can have an effect on the local economy greater than their numbers would suggest.
“That clientele can create a ripple effect,” air travel consultant Kent Myers said. “It may not be a direct impact, but what’s the value of someone who brings a friend who then buys a townhome?”
And, increasingly, the people flying into the Jet Center are coming from outside the United States.
The one-man U.S. Customs desk cleared just 60 international flights in 2003. In 2010, there were 389 such flights. Most of those flights came from Mexico or South America. But, Gordon said, the range of the latest corporate jets make nonstop flights from Russia possible.
“We all know Vail’s an international destination now,” Gordon said. “That’s where all the growth is going to come from, and it takes a whole community to have something like that.”
Business Editor Scott N. Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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