Aviation Services Climb Back to Cruising Altitude

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — From a distance, you hear the sound of rotary blades whirling as a small gray helicopter closes in from the south, easing down just outside a hangar at Youngstown Elser Metro Airport in North Lima.

Utility companies often use helicopters to patrol electric lines from the air as they look for potential weak spots. In this case, the pilot has finished his tour for the day and prepares to wheel the craft into the hangar for the evening.

It’s typical of the activity at Elser, home of Gemco Aviation Services Inc., says CEO Mike Stanko. The small airport houses 54 aircraft that range from private jets to single-engine airplanes.

“We have everything from small single engines up through turbo props and business jets,” he says. “We have a nice mix of aviation here. We have two jets, four turbo props, and the rest are either piston single- or twin-engines.”

While transient traffic – that is, daily routine aircraft flying in and out of the airport – has fallen over the past five years, Gemco Aviation’s service business is growing.

Maintenance work, for example, has increased substantially at the airport, Stanko reports. “We’ve been extremely busy and we’re very fortunate,” he says. “A lot of it is because of our diversity.”

Gemco specializes in the restoration of antique and classic aircraft and is renown for its work on historic Beechcraft Staggerwing models.

Two years ago, the company restored a 1947 Staggerwing that took home a Bronze Lindy trophy at the Experimental Aviation Association’s annual air show in Oshkosh, Wis. “It was what I expected because that airplane was highly modified,” Stanko says, “and in the category we were in, it was the highest we could attain.”

Stanko says all of the instrumentation, safety features and avionics are updated in Gemco’s restoration projects, but the exterior remains faithful to the original design. “Restoration work is still fairly strong,” he says. “It’s cyclical.”

But it’s the amount of repair and overhaul work on more traditional aircraft that has kept the Gemco crew busy throughout the year, Stanko relates.

Currently, Gemco’s mechanics are working on several projects, including heavy maintenance on a 1981 Cessna owned by a family in Mansfield. “This is the first time it’s going through a major upgrade,” he says. “We’ve completely gutted the instrumentation panel, making new wiring harnesses and safety improvements.”

The lead mechanic at Gemco, Chris Kotch, became interested in aviation when he completed a project for the Smithsonian Institution that included retrieving two World War II P-40 fighter planes that had crashed in Kenya.

“We had to build them a special set of wrenches to be able to take the wings off,” Kotch says. “When they brought them back to the museum, we got a tour. And that’s what got me started.”

He’s worked at Gemco for 15 years and is a graduate of the Pittsburgh Institute of Aeronautics. “We can work on anything that can get inside here,” he says. “We have a Cessna Citation, home-builds, turbo power aircraft and some light jets.”

The most challenging aspect of the business is keeping up with new regulations and technology. “We invest an awful lot in training,” Kotch says.

Transient traffic in the private aviation industry is still well off the business volumes experienced just before the Great Recession hit six years ago, Stanko says. Even so, maintenance and general support services continue to thrive, allowing smaller airports to maintain, and in some cases increase, aspects of their business.

“I’d say overall our transient traffic is off 50%,” Stanko says, compared to five years ago.

Aviation fuel remains costly, Stanko says, and many customers use the Internet learn where the lowest prices are. “A lot of people will fly from point A to point B based on where they could buy economical, competitive fuel,” Stanko says. “Then they want to see if you have the services you need. We spend advertising dollars on that to attract people to the facility.”

Smaller markets such as the Youngstown region feel the hit more than the larger metropolitan regions, Stanko says. However, the aircraft based at Elser continue to fly regularly.

Meanwhile, aircraft management companies that charter private business and pleasure travel have seen a huge leap in business over the last year.

“We’re up between 30% to 40% from last year,” reports Corey Head, president of Sky Quest LLC, which operates mostly out of Cleveland Hopkins Airport. “We now have 10 jets under management. We had seven last year.”

Sky Quest manages and charters privately owned jet aircraft for destinations related to business or vacations, Head says. Chartering flights helps offset the costs of owning an aircraft, and private jet owners are more than willing to pay management companies to handle such travel.

“The owner doesn’t have to do anything,” Head says. Sky Quest hires the pilots, buys the fuel, conducts the maintenance and charters the flights. “We do all the work and bill them each month,” he explains. Bills can range between $20,000 and $50,000 per month, about half of what it would cost without the charter business.

Chartering a private flight isn’t cheap, either. Sky Quest manages four midsize jets that seat nine passengers. Six others are considered light jets with the capacity to seat seven. On average, a private chartered flight costs between $6,000 and $8,000, or roughly $1,000 to $1,500 per person.

“We’re not out to compete with airlines,” Head says. “This is a service that is tailored to meet your schedule. There are no delays. You’re always guaranteed a flight.”

About 80% of the company’s business comes out of the Cleveland market, Head notes, but Sky Quest makes one or two stops a month to accommodate passengers wanting to fly out of the Youngstown-Warren Regional Airport.

“We fly anywhere in the U.S. and Canada and to the Caribbean,” he says. “We just finished an eight-day trip to Aruba, nonstop, on a midsize jet.”

The company’s goal is to serve the northeastern Ohio market and connect this region with the rest of the country through luxury business travel, Head adds.

“Businesses are looking for unique opportunities and travel,” he elaborates. “The market is back at all-time highs, so people are seeing some extra cash to allow for vacations and allow for private flight.”

Head foresees this trend continuing over the next several years. “We’re looking toward the future and more growth,” he says. “We could double in size in five years.”

Pictured: Mike Stanko says Gemco Aviation houses 54 aircraft at Youngstown Elser Metro Airport.

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