By Emma Sapong
Across the runways from the new terminal at the Buffalo Niagara International Airport is a long-standing, local aviation business that has played a vital role in airport operations.
Prior Aviation Service has been a profitable business, serving as the private-sector arm of airline operations at the airport for 51 years, while operating its own separate charter flight service, flight school and numerous other services for the local aviation industry.
“Western New York is very much a good market,” said David E. Mittlefehldt, the company’s president and CEO, said of the charter business. “In fact a lot of companies depend on it exclusively to transport their employees around the country. There’s definitely a huge need here.”
Prior also handles other general aviation needs as a full-service, fixed-based operator. The company provides services to private and commercial aircraft, such as maintenance, hangaring and de-icing for major carriers.
Prior’s hangars house corporate jets and other planes of several area companies; its own fleet transports business executives, celebrities and other private citizens, and its nationally accredited school trains about 50 pilots each year.
Such a broad-based approach to serving the aviation industry is almost a throwback in the evolving airport business.
“Our long-term sustainability can be attributed to our core philosophy, which is to offer superior customer service with a full complement of products and services supporting the wide variety of air travel requirements and operations for our customers,” Mittlefehldt said.
Like other fixed-base operators, the sale of fuel is the lifeblood of the business. Prior has a two-prong refueling operation – a department for its contracts with commercial airlines, to transport fuel and fill up jets at the airport; and another for retail sales of general aviation products, including fuel, at Prior’s ramp.
“Second only to our charter aircraft, our two fueling departments account for the lion’s share of our assets and the core of our business,” Mittlefehldt said.
Prior, which employs 165 people, operates with a contract with the NFTA. “The NFTA has been instrumental in their support of our efforts to meet the changing demands of our industry,” he said.
Prior provides fleet maintenance for the airport’s commercial airlines and services more than 200 motorized vehicles each year.
“The NFTA spearheads a medium-size airport, supporting a wide range of big league services to the general public,” Mittlefehldt said. “The NFTA designed a world-class airport in good old Buffalo, and we are lucky to be part of it.”
Prior has been the lone fixed-base operator (FBO) at the airport for decades, but being the only game in town doesn’t guarantee long-term profits, especially in a troubled economy. Instead, the company’s seven different departments have been key to its longevity.
“We were able to sustain because we are so diversified,” he said. However, the company hasn’t been immune to market shifts. Its workforce peaked at 230 workers but over the years, it downsized and made adjustments in various departments.
“Although we still feel the pain of a depressed economy as a full-service FBO, we are much less susceptible to the extreme economic fluctuations,” he said.
The FBO industry has moved from full-service models and to more focused, specialty markets, but Prior Aviation still offers a broad-range of services.
“We are a holdout in a small group of full-service FBO’s,” he said. Mittlefehldt describes the full-service model as “businesses within businesses.” Many FBOs now build their operations around a singular category of service and sales, like aircraft maintenance, refueling or aircraft management.
“But we continue to offer all of these unique segments/businesses here in Buffalo, under one roof as a full-service FBO,” he said.
Prior was founded in 1961 by Jack B. Prior, a respected civilian and World War II pilot, offering the wide scope of services.
Over the years, the company bought out its competitors; its last acquisition was in 1985, making it the only FBO at the airport. Prior also nixed and added services, most notably, in the 1970s, exiting the locally based helicopter market and instead buying a light fixed-wing aircraft, which marked the start of the company’s fleet. Today, Prior’s fleet boasts a Citation III, a medium jet; a Learjet 31A, a light jet; and a Beach Kingair B-200, a turbo prop.
“We started out with light twin-engine piston aircraft, and as the demand changed for more space and speed, we replaced and upgraded the fleet to meet demand to what it is today,” Mittlefehldt said.
Prior is owned in whole by Reginald Newman, the founder of Noco Energy Corp. But Prior operates separately and independently of Noco, he said.
Noco is considered a “preferred” supplier among many others for a portion of Prior’s profitable retail and refueling contracts at the airport. Prior is an “unbranded” fuel distributor, so it buys from different sources on an open market, Mittlefehldt said.
In 1992, Prior expanded at its North Airport Parkway location with a new 8,000-square-foot passenger terminal and headquarters facility with lounges, executive conference rooms, flight planning areas and a flight simulator for training.
Prior’s various strategic moves led to its growth, prompting its founder to bring in Mittlefehldt and executives with business training to help run the booming company. Mittlefehldt, a Kenmore native with 40 years of aviation experience, has an undergraduate degree in aviation management and executive MBA from UB. He joined the company in 1989.
With the economy improving, Mittlefehldt said the industry is rebounding, slowly. In a down economy, discretionary flying is the first to go when belts are tightened, and it’s also the last to return, when conditions improve, he said.
“We are guardedly optimistic for the future,” he said “We continue to look for efficiencies that will support our main philosophy. Our industry is still experiencing the ups and downs of the economy, but in general we see a gradual but very slow recovery.”