Expansion Is in the Wings at Winner Aviation

VIENNA TOWNSHIP, Ohio – Michael Hillman, director of flight operations at Winner Aviation Corp., Vienna Township, reaches for the side door of his company’s King Air B100 turboprop and out drops a series of steps that lead into the cabin.

Inside are eight leather-covered seats for passengers and a two-man cockpit, with room leftover toward the rear for baggage storage.

“This is in the air probably half the week,“ Hillman says. “It serves local business travel to cities such as Indianapolis, New York and the like, typically an hour, or hour-and-a-half, each way.”

Business travel makes up the bulk of Winner’s charter services, Hillman says, and this King Air is the only aircraft the company owns. That’s by design.

“Our model isn’t to own aircraft. It’s to operate other people’s aircraft,” says Winner Aviation’s president, Neil Gallagher.

In all, the company manages four King Air 100s at the Youngstown-Warren Regional Airport, three of which other parties own. While the majority of their use is reserved for business travel, the owners of turbo props see value in using Winner to market and charter the aircraft when the planes are not scheduled for corporate use.

Winner employs four pilots full-time and uses 10 others on a per diem schedule, Gallagher says.

“We fly every day,” Hillman says. “It’s very seldom a day goes by when an aircraft isn’t moving.” The goal this year is to increase its fleet of managed aircraft. “We’re looking for customers who want to own, or own a share of, an aircraft,” he says.

Gallagher anticipates the company should land two additional jets on its charter certificate soon, and two more by March 2017. “Our goal is to be up to four additional jets within a year,” he says. “We’ve done a local study and we know the demand is there to support that.”

Winner is the sole fixed-base operator, or FBO, at the Youngstown airport. That means there’s much more to the business than managing charter and corporate aircraft flights. “I like to call it a one-stop-shop aviation services company,” Gallagher says. As such, Winner Aviation provides ground handling, fuel services, aircraft charter management, aircraft maintenance, and sales of over-the-counter parts.

“There’s a lot of companies in aviation that strictly provide aircraft maintenance, for instance, but they’re missing the other services that a customer may require,” Gallagher adds.

In March, the company earned designation as a Gateway City FBO that serves Reagan National Airport just outside Washington. This certifies Winner and the Youngstown-Warren Regional Airport to clear all private aviation customers who fly directly into Reagan from other airports across the country.

“I liken it to clearing customs,” Gallagher says. “You can drop in here from anywhere, and then fly to Reagan.”

The designation doesn’t affect commercial air carriers, just private and corporate aviation, he says. This could help boost business for the airport during the Republican National Convention, scheduled for Cleveland July 18 to 22.

Plus, the company has formed a strong business relationship with carrier Allegiant Air, which since 2006 has provided seasonal passenger service from Youngstown-Warren to select destinations twice a week. This connection has allowed Winner to expand to two of Allegiant’s destinations – Myrtle Beach, S.C., and Fort Walton Beach, Fla. Winner also maintains locations in Niagara Falls and Elmira, N.Y., and Lexington, Ky.

This business, says Gallagher, can only be enhanced with Aerodynamics Inc. touching down at the airport. ADI will provide daily passenger service to and from Youngstown-Warren to Chicago O’Hare International Airport with flights expected to begin May 30.

“The addition of this daily flight service is going to have a positive impact for our maintenance department,” he states.

Aerodynamics was to formally announce daily flight service to O’Hare during a press event scheduled for March 29.

“We’re seeing more opportunities,” Gallagher says. “We’re going to go out of our way to make sure it’s widely known that we have this daily service and attract some new customers.”

The addition of daily service is helpful because it allows the company to provide outbound flights to pilots the same day they bring an aircraft in for maintenance.

Acquiring other new customers is the result of slowly building business relationships, says Rick Hale, chairman and CEO of Winner Aviation.

“It’s a progression of time that may consist of new people buying new airplanes, or changing airplanes, and whether they would have the opportunity to look at different service providers. So, it’s not a Big Bang approach,” Hale says.

“It’s a matter of how much we want to take on, what responsibilities we want to take on in different locations, and how we want to grow. We’ve been pretty conservative as to what we’ve gone after.”

Hale says the company could eventually expand to as many as 20 locations. Today Winner Aviation employs 166 at its six locations.

Winner Aviation assumed operations at the airport in 1995 after the late businessman Jim Winner purchased the company from what once was Beckett Aviation, which started at the Vienna site in 1946.

Over the last 20 years, the company has diversified and adapted with the market, says Hale, who became sole owner of the company in 2008.

And Winner Aviation has pumped new investment to refresh its hangar space, he adds. A hangar door was re-engineered in Hangar 2, and fresh paint was applied to the walls, ceiling and floors to improve lighting.

Winner’s main hangar has become a focal point for candidates for political office. In 2004, President George W. Bush flew in for a large rally at the Winner hangar during his re-election bid. On March 14, Donald Trump, the frontrunner for the GOP nomination for president, nosed his personal Boeing 727 just outside the main hangar, stepped out and addressed a crowd of about 2,000.

Much of the hangar capacity – in all, Winner boasts 85,000 square feet of office and hangar space – is used for maintenance work, Gallagher says. These services encompass complete engine overhauls, preventive maintenance and routine fixes on all types of aircraft. Most of the work is done on small jets to turboprops, and customers from as far away as South Carolina fly here specifically to use Winner’s services.

An engine overhaul, for example, is a large undertaking with a hefty price tag – upward of $250,000 per engine, Gallagher says. “We can do a complete teardown and buildup of a TPD 331 Honeywell engine.”

Business in this department ebbs and flows, depending on a customer’s overhaul schedules. “We’ve found that our customer base is clustered together when it comes for an engine overhaul,” he adds. “We’ll have one year where we’ll go gangbusters and another year when we’ll do one.”

Avionics upgrades – that is, cockpit panel instrumentation – are also a large part of the operation, says Peter Quick, Winner avionics manager. “We install modern glass cockpits and incorporate modern avionics technology,” he says. “We do installations on every airframe available. It’s something we love to do.”

While software and new technology are driving advances in the industry, much of the old instrumentation is valuable to learn on because it’s still in use. “It’s used in the field and is in about 60% of the aircraft today,” Quick says.

Winner’s full-service capability leaves ample room to expand in the near future, Gallagher says.

“We’re looking for great expansion in flight charter department, and looking for that expansion to help us in our maintenance department, where we’ll enjoy more work with more aircraft,” he adds. “We also see some expansion opportunities in ground-handling.”

Although Winner might not be as well known as its national competitors, Gallagher is quick to point out that the qualifications Winner meets are precisely the same as the better-known brand names of larger companies.

“There’s the idea out there that because of name brand recognition, you’re safer with these larger companies,” he says. “What people don’t understand is that the qualifications we have to meet are identical to those qualifications of our larger competitors.”

Pictured: Neil Gallagher, president, Michael Hillman, director of flight operations, and Rick Hale, CEO and chairman of Winner Aviation Corp., say opportunity is in the air this year.

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.