MANATEE -- When the eight-passenger jet flies into Sarasota/Bradenton International Airport today, it will mark a further expansion of private jet services to this area.
Aero Jet Services, based in Scottsdale, Ariz., is opening a service at SRQ in 85,000 square feet of leased hangar space at Dolphin Aviation. The company, which was founded in 1996, is among private jet companies that, if they survived the recession, are finding a growing economy enticing more passengers to once again turn to private jets for transportation.
The charter private jet business is soaring, according to Adam Twidell, the founder of PrivateFly, an online booking service for private jets. He told CNN he has seen a yearly threefold growth since he launched his company in 2007.
Rectrix Aviation, a private jet charter service that built a $20 million facility at SRQ in 2008, also is expanding with its recent acquisition of AirFlyte, a Westfield, Mass., fixed-base operator with maintenance and hangar facilities. A fixed-base operator, or FBO, is a commercial business that operates at the airport and provides services such as fueling, hangaring, aircraft rental, maintenance and flight instruction.
General aviation traffic at the airport is increasing, said Rick Piccolo, CEO and president of SRQ. Landings and takeoffs for aircraft other than those by major airlines are up 28 percent in the past year.
"That's a considerable amount," Piccolo said. "It seems there are more and more jets and aircraft on the ramps at our FBOs."
Mike McCain, vice president of Aero Jet Services, said the company, which owns, leases and manages private jet service, took a "substantial hit" during the recession evidenced by its $70 million annual pre-recession revenues dropping to $15 million last year. But he is now
seeing "a very steep upturn in private air travel."
"Before, most people owned a jet, then during the recession they sold them. Now they are getting back into the jet market," McCain said.
Aero Jet decided to expand into Sarasota because, McCain said, it is an underserved market for private jet service.
"We are filling what we see as a void," he said. "And we've gotten a number of phone calls since we announced our expansion."
The company will initially have two pilots and an eight-passenger jet operating out of SRQ. McCain expects to have three by the end of the year. The company also will be offering air medical ambulance service for people needing emergency flights for medical purposes. As a government contractor, Aero Jet also provides flights for officials from federal agencies like FEMA, the U.S. Marshals Service and Customs and Immigration.
The company is hiring a sales person and expects to also employ several mechanics at its SRQ operation.
It's a gamble, McCain admits, but he and Richard Cawley, CEO of Rectrix, think there is a lot of sales potential in the Manatee/Sarasota market as well as the rest of Florida's gulf coast. Both operations are designed to attract passengers from as far south as Naples.
"We work with 10 percent of the 1 percent," McCain said, admitting that private jets are still an exclusive service only enjoyed by a few.
Rectrix, which owns its own jets as well as managing others, has seen its revenues climb year over year. The Aviation International News ranked Rectrix seventh in the recent annual survey of the top fixed-base operators in the country.
The company, founded in 2004, has seen its revenues doubled during the last four years, Cawley said. He expects in the next five years the company, with fixed-base operations in Hyannis and SRQ, will add 150 employees with 20 to 25 located in Sarasota.
Cawley says its 25-acre operation at SRQ, which has 25 employees including 10 pilots, has 55 percent of the corporate jet business in Sarasota.
"We are never concerned about competition," he said. "We just concentrate on what we do and do it well."
The company focuses on safety, maintaining new planes, hiring good employees, and nurturing customers, Cawley said. With its acquisition of AirFlyte, he expects the company will save money by being able to provide maintenance on its own jets.
Piccolo said private jet service expansion at SRQ benefits the airport.
"General aviation revenues are about 6 percent of the airport's budget," he said. "It's not huge, about $1 million a year, but it is an important part."