Jet set redefines aviation at Aspen’s Sardy Field
November 4, 2005
Perhaps nowhere has the transformation of general aviation been more pronounced than in Aspen – the destination of jet-setters, literally.The single-engine planes that were once the everyman’s aircraft are overshadowed by private jets that rival the size of the commercial airliners parked on the tarmac at the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport.Aspen’s Cliff Runge is as surprised by the evolution as anyone, despite his tenure as a charter-plane operator and his “wingside” seat at the local airstrip, also known as Sardy Field, for two decades.Runge recently stepped down as manager of Aspen Base Operations at Sardy Field after overseeing general aviation operations there for 20 years. Runge and his partners sold ABO to Texas-based Trajen FBO Network, which approached ABO’s owners with an unexpected, but enticing offer. The transaction was finalized for an undisclosed sum last month.Chad Farischon has taken over as general manager of Trajen FBO at Sardy Field, but most of the old ABO staff has been retained and the new owner is planning business as usual for the private and corporate aircraft flying in and out at Sardy Field, according to Don Prescott, Trajen vice president of strategic planning and corporate development.”We don’t have any big changes mind for it,” he said.
Aspen’s fixed-base operation was a natural for Trajen, which operates 17 other FBOs around the country.”A lot of our customers go to Aspen from Oklahoma, California, Texas – ninety percent of the customers at Aspen are customers of ours at other locations,” Prescott said. “It [ABO] had a really good reputation in the market. For the last several years, I’ve been interested in it.”
A fixed-base operation – or FBO – is a glorified gas station, as Runge puts it.Its business, by and large, is refueling aircraft. Concierge and catering services were also part of ABO’s operation, and are part of Trajen’s. The company has also purchased Cecily’s restaurant at the nearby Aspen Business Center; it provided the catering services for ABO’s customers.A company that has base operations at various airports can gain a competitive advantage in offering fuel rates and coordinated accounting/billing services, for example, to its flying clientele, making Aspen a logical acquisition for Trajen.Virtually all of Trajen’s other FBOs face competition from other onsite operators, according to Prescott. Although Aspen has just one operator, the refueling operation is hardly a monopoly in the broader scheme of things, he said. Jets don’t have to refuel in Aspen.”Even if there’s nobody else on the field, you’re in competition with the last place they [an aircraft] stopped and the place they’re going,” Prescott said.Despite a rather dramatic drop in general aviation at Sardy Field – 36,838 planes landed and took off in 1990, compared to 29,930 in 2001, according to Pitkin County – ABO was a healthy enterprise, Runge said.Fewer private aircraft may be coming and going, but those big planes require a lot more fuel, he explained.”It far exceed our expectations as far as its ability to be a good operating company and a profitable company,” Runge said.
In fact, just about everything about general aviation probably exceeded the expectations of ABO’s investors. They took over the operation in late 1984 after a court dispute; Runge became general manager in early in 1985 and was made a partner, as well.He also ran Aspen Aviation, a charter service that was first based in Crested Butte. And he owned the small Crested Butte Airport throughout the 1980s.Runge acquired the airport with an expectation shared by many investors in Crested Butte, the ski resort to the south of Aspen. “Everybody thinks Crested Butte is the next Aspen, you know,” he said.Though he ran charter services out of offices on both sides of the Elk Mountains, Runge moved to the Aspen side.”It didn’t take me long to decide which side of the mountains had the potential for a charter service,” he said.
Runge recently sold Aspen Aviation to charter service Aspen Executive Air. His fleet of Lear Jets and King Air turboprops were falling behind in the flying game.”The industry went right by us,” he said. “The Lear can park beneath the wing of a Gulfstream and nobody wants to be in a plane like that anymore.”The advent of fractional ownership in luxury jets has brought private planes to the masses, so to speak. They’re not just for the super-wealthy anymore; the simply wealthy can travel in one, as well.”You can now fly in a private airplane much, much cheaper than owning your own airplane and hiring your own pilot,” Runge noted.Aspen’s three largest customers are in the fractional jet business – NetJets, Flexjet and Jet Solutions, he said.”That’s what’s driving this market. It has changed the whole industry,” Runge said. “From the manufacturer to the guy that pumps the gas, which was us, it has been good for business for everyone.”Janet Urquhart’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org