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Airport services faltering in bad economy
April 18, 2011
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  • April 17, 2011
    By: Tom West

    NASHUA – Companies that service corporate jets and propeller aircraft at Nashua Municipal Airport are in financial trouble, along with companies like them throughout the country.

    The companies are known as fixed-base operators, or FBOs. They sell fuel for props and jets, provide maintenance and offer lounges where pilots can relax, develop flight plans and check the weather. They offer flight training, as well.

    Business has been bad for about four years. Fuel sales have fallen by about 50 percent, one FBO says. The number of pilot licenses issued over the last decade has dropped dramatically, analysts say.

    It’s difficult for the industry to judge when business will improve because FBOs are known in industry parlance as “lagging indicators,” meaning they recover more slowly than the economy as a whole.

    “Anecdotally, we know that many are hurting because of the recession,” said Chris Daney, media relations director for the Airline Owners and Pilots Association, which tracks the industry.

    “That is, at least in part, because individuals who own and operate aircraft do so with discretionary dollars.”

    The hard times facing FBOs became evident in Nashua recently when GFW Aeroservices, an FBO at Nashua Airport, closed its doors.

    GFW had been in business for 29 years at the airport, which is also known as Boire Field, after a local airman killed in the Caribbean at the start of World War II.

    Owner Frank Waller said in an announcement that he was retiring because of “unforeseen circumstances.”

    But it was the economy that forced Waller to close, said Greg Lison, an executive at Infinity Aviation, the other FBO at the airport.

    Moreover, Kenneth McLaughlin, an 83-year-old former Nashua District Court judge who owns the building from which Waller operated, said he’d had trouble paying the rent for more than a year.

    “For the past year or year and half, default was acute,” said McLaughlin, who has been in business at the airport for decades.

    As requested by Waller, Lison hired most of GFW’s staff, about five employees.

    McLaughlin, along with his son, Shane, a local lawyer and aviator, took over Waller’s FBO status for a temporary 60-day period, and they plan to make it permanent, calling their operation Nashua Jet Aviation.

    McLaughlin’s company also includes his son-in-law, David Whittemore, a former Air Force pilot who has flown to most of the war-torn nations of the world.

    “David is an essential part of the operation,” McLaughlin said.

    The Nashua Airport Authority, the governing body at Boire, will decide on a new permanent FBO in two months, said airport manager Roy Rankin.

    “Since business is down about 40 percent, I don’t see people waiting in line for a spot,” Rankin said.

    Lison and the McLaughlins say that with the departure of GFW, the most important thing they can offer is continuity of service for airport users.

    These users include General Motors and Walmart, which can fly their jets into Nashua for a few hours in the afternoon and be back in Chicago or Detroit by nightfall.

    “The airport is without question one of best-kept secrets in the city,” Shane McLaughlin said.

    He, his father and Lison say they’re working with the Greater Nashua Chamber of Commerce to call attention to the services Boire offers and the revenue it generates through fuel taxes and other fees.

    Boire is the busiest general-aviation airport in New England. In the past, corporations have chosen Nashua for new plants or headquarters because of the airport.

    “If it weren’t for the airport, they’d choose Manchester,” Shane McLaughlin said.

    Kenneth McLaughlin said that as the recession grew worse, some corporations suspended their flight programs.

    Some got rid of their corporate jets after congressional hearings on the crumbling automotive industry in 2008 showed most executives had flown in their corporate jets to Washington, D.C., rather than driving the cars they built.

    “Within in a week, they were selling their jets,” Shane McLaughlin said.

    Now, Kenneth McLaughlin says, corporations are turning to “fractional ownership,” which means they buy their jets together. Each might buy a fraction of a multimillion-dollar jet and work out a schedule so they can use the aircraft at a portion of the cost.

    Both Nashua Jet Aviation and Infinity offer charter flights, in addition to their other services.

    Infinity flies mostly to North and South America, as well the Caribbean, Lison said. The McLaughlins have pilots who do the same. Both offer concierge service, supplying cars to corporate clients and other services.

    The company’s biggest competitor is Hanscom Field in Bedford, Mass., but the McLaughlins say Boire requires considerably less red tape to get an aircraft in and out of the airport.

    Construction on a new $24 million extended runway is expected to start next year, with the federal government picking up most of the tab.

    The decision by Daniel Webster College to end its flight operations training program was a serious blow to the airport, especially for GFW, which supplied fuel to the school.

    Lison says his operation is more diversified, and thus more able to roll with the punches. Still, he expects some fierce competition in 2011.

    “It looks like we’ll both be fighting for the same table scraps,” he said.

    Date: 2011-04-17