When Tom Williams went about revamping Meridian Aviation, he wanted to make it a memorable stop for pilots.
Traffic at the fixed based operations, or FBO, has increased thanks in large part to renovations to the pilots and passengers lounge area, 40,000 square feet of enclosed hangar space, 23 open-air hangars and on-site aircraft maintenance by Dean Aircraft Service.
With its steady stream of available fuel for both corporate and military aircraft, Meridian Aviation is enjoying an emerging status as one of the regions best FBOs, said Williams, who is president of the Meridian Airport Authority and Meridian Aviation.
FBOs provide a myriad of services to general aviation pilots who fly private planes, which includes those used by businesses, corporations and individuals. Most airports that handle commercial flights also provide space for separate FBO providers. Meridian Aviation handles FBO services at Meridian Regional Airport.
At a minimum, most FBOs offer fuel for sale and have an office with bathrooms for use by visiting pilots. Many have hangar space where pilots can store their planes. Many offer amenities to entice pilots to land at their FBO.
Among other things, Meridian Aviation provides briefing rooms for strategy sessions, a courtesy car, plus free hot dogs, coffee and ice cream.
“We have this regular pilot now from Fort Smith, Ark., who takes his family down to Florida but always makes a stop here because as his kid tells it, ‘This is the place with the ice cream,'” Williams said.
Meridian Aviation Manager Chris Sutton, who has been with the airport for 21 years, said the FBO isn’t all about fun amenities. Meridian Aviation’s computerized weather and flight-planning room provides a vital service, he said.
“This is the place where they come to check flight plans and check the weather,” Sutton said. “Weather is the number one thing for a pilot.”
Williams said you never know who will drop in.
“We had Tony Bennett sit in our lounge while he waited on his ride,” Williams said.
While some pilots will hang out at the FBO all day, most stay 15 to 20 minutes, just long enough to fuel up. And while amenities attract many pilots to a particular FBO, it is the gasoline that is the main commodity.
Small private planes, corporate jets and military aircraft all need fuel and some need lots of it. An army Chinook helicopter, for example, can require between 400 and 800 gallons per stop.
Williams said that in 2004, the airport had only nine employees and sold just 742,279 gallons of fuel. In 2013, the fuel purchased nearly tripled to 2,092,189 gallons, and the airport now has 13 employees.
The airport has three tankers, two that can serve jet fuel while the other serves Avgas. The FBO also offers self-serve gas for those who wish to save a few bucks.
Local flight instructor Troy Moore said he appreciates the growth that Meridian Aviation has experienced.
“I’m here just about every day,” Moore said. “The old building that they use to have was pretty rough. This new pilots’ area is really nice.”
For Williams, the good reviews keep the pilots coming back.
“Our Airport Authority was created in 1992 and has never received any subsidy from the city of Meridian or Lauderdale County,” Williams said. “Our annual budget is $7.8 million. We brought in $8.5 million last year and that net profit of $700,000 goes back into the facility.”