Purchase of Port Angeles company paved way for local firm’s expansion
Given the past struggles of fixed-base operators at the Bellingham International Airport, it would appear Bellingham Aviation Services was taking a big risk when the company decided to make a large investment to build an avionics and maintenance facility.
The facility has been open since April, and to the relief of BAS Operations Manager Jeff Geer, business has been brisk.
“The response has exceeded our expectations and we’re feeling more comfortable about reaching our goal of making this facility profitable within a year,” said Geer.
Business has been going so well the company is already adding a fourth mechanic to handle the workload. In August, the maintenance and avionics facility worked on 20 airplanes, providing services including drop-in repairs and installation of sophisticated electronic equipment. The facility has enough room to handle four planes at a time.
Geer estimates the facility needs to average 15 planes a month to make it a profitable operation for Bellingham Jet Center, a division of BAS. He doesn’t expect the winter months to slow down much, as pilots use the slower season to purchase upgrades and new gadgets for the planes.
“We weren’t sure what kind of response we would get at this airport, because there has never been a combined maintenance/avionics facility in Bellingham before,” Geer said. “But planes have been lining up since the first day, not only those based here in Bellingham, but from outside the area as well.”
It’s been nearly two years since BAS and its competitor, Bellingham Aero, took over as fixed-based operators at the airport, and both companies appear to be flourishing.
While BAS has been getting its maintenance and avionics facility operational to complement its flight school and fueling services, Bellingham Aero established an air taxi service to the San Juan Islands that has been very busy this summer, said Linda Marrom, who handles customer relations, sales and marketing for the company. They have even begun discussing plans to expand their operations beyond the San Juan islands, possibly going into Canada and Southeast Alaska.
“Our planes are spending more time in the air than on the ground these days,” Marrom said. “We’re fortunate to have tapped into a market not only where we have tourists interested in our services, but residents of the islands who make regular trips into Bellingham.”
Bellingham Aero’s flight school and fueling services division have also been doing quite well. The amount of fuel they’ve been dispensing has quadrupled since they first started, and the number of students in a typical 10-week flight school course has risen from 10 to 25.
“The activity at the airport has grown at an extreme rate, and it’s something that was needed,” Marrom said. “It can only lead to bigger things, which is important for the survival of an airport of Bellingham’s size.”
It wasn’t long ago that it was challenging for one FBO, let alone two, to survive at the airport. The Port of Bellingham handled the fueling operations from Oct. 2001 to December 2003 while trying to find a replacement for Alpha Aviation, which lost its fueling contract with the port. Alpha Aviation had taken over the FBO position in 1998, after another company, Aviation Northwest, had its contract terminated.
One of the reasons FBOs have struggled in the past is because the Bellingham Airport simply wasn’t big enough to generate a profit, said Geer, a long-time local pilot. However, infrastructure improvements to the airport, including the construction of airplane hangars, has created a situation where pilots now prefer mid-size airports like Bellingham to the congestion one sees at places like Sea-Tac.
“It’s amazing how many more corporate jets we see at the Bellingham airport from just a few years ago,” Geer said.
The impact is more than just increased activity at the airport. Geer believes it’s an economic driver for the rest of the county.
“As more corporate planes visit Bellingham and companies see what services are offered here, it may help company officials decide Bellingham might be a good place to build a facility,” Geer said. “When companies are scouting Whatcom County as a possible site for a new facility, they come here by plane and the airport is the first impression they’ll form of the area. Just by having a maintenance and avionics facility available in Bellingham helps create a favorable impression.”
Getting off the ground
It took a little over a year and around $100,000 for BAS’ new maintenance and avionics facility to become a reality. BAS started the process by purchasing San Juan Avionics, located in Port Angeles.
“Ironically, we needed a shop and employees in place before we could get certified by the FAA,” Geer said. “And we couldn’t operate the facility if you weren’t certified.”
Much of the process involved plenty of paperwork and the testing of equipment.
“It’s a micromanaged process, and it’s that way for good reason,” Geer said. “The FAA doesn’t want people working on planes who have no business being there.”
The day after BAS received their certification in April, planes began lining up outside the facility.
“We quickly learned that it was important to be flexible with our scheduling,” Geer said. “Right from the start we were getting drop-ins, pilots who needed something fixed quickly so they could get back into the air. We had to prioritize the work we were doing with the drop-ins with the pre-booked avionic installation work, which can take weeks to do.”
BAS has also learned the best way to attain solid profit margins is through the avionics installations, and less so with the repair business. Like many products today, it is more challenging to repair a 30-year-old radio because it is difficult to find the parts for it.
“We’ll do our best in trying to find the parts, but for many planes, an overall upgrade is required,” Geer said.
As the facility becomes more established, Geer said, there are a variety of services that can be added. One intriguing idea is getting into the installation of high-end electronic entertainment systems for corporate jets.
“It’s a niche worth looking at, but we want to make sure we are good at the basics before we even attempt that,” Geer said. “We are also looking at ideas such as expanding out beyond the Pacific Northwest as an FBO, using Bellingham as a template.”
For now, the focus is on Bellingham.
“We’re very happy with how its gone to this point, and I think Bellingham is benefiting as a community,” Geer said. “There is an increased perception among the pilots that there are more air services being offered in Bellingham, and pilots are making the trip here. As more services are added, there are more high-paying jobs created. We’re already working with the Bellingham Technical College to get more people trained in avionics.
“I think this is the kind of economic opportunity Bellingham is looking for.”