By Kimberly Hundley
Photos by Mark Susan
When you’re looking to sell a prime aircraft that hovers in the $2 million space, you don’t exactly post the engineering marvel on Craig’s List like an old Dodge Dart. Such an exquisite transaction requires expertise, the kind most reliably located through rock-solid referrals.
That’s how Kahala Corp. founder and CEO Kevin Blackwell selected Scottsdale Airpark’s Pinnacle Aviation to find a buyer for his company’s Pilatus PC-12 this fall. The turbo-prop had proved itself a workhorse for short to medium-sized runs, but Scottsdale-based Kahala—which now owns more than a dozen brands, from Cold Stone Creamery to Samurai Sam’s—would increasingly need the global traveling chops of its monster corporate jet, the Citation Sovereign.
“When I told my pilots I was thinking of selling the Pilatus, they said, ‘This is the man you should use,’” says Blackwell. “He came highly endorsed by two guys that I obviously trust with my life.”
The man in question is Curt Pavlicek, president and CEO of Pinnacle Aviation, specializing in charter, sales and acquisitions, management, maintenance and insurance. The five companies operating under the Pinnacle umbrella are based out at Southwest Jet Center on the east side of Scottsdale Municipal Airport, a private FBO facility where Blackwell houses his Sovereign and Pinnacle leases its own hangar as well as a suite of executive and maintenance offices.
Blackwell’s instincts about the referral paid off. Pavlicek negotiated the Pilatus sale seamlessly and at “the exact price we were looking for,” says Blackwell. “I was just very impressed. If I go on the market to look for another plane, he would be the man I would go to.”
No surprise, really.
Even if you didn’t know Pavlicek’s background, there’s something about him that instills trust when it comes to all things aviation. Maybe it’s because the mild-mannered South Dakotan has been treading the tarmac at Scottsdale Airport since 1980, when he started a small charter company. His career evolved into corporate pilot and then, organically, into sales and acquisitions under the Pinnacle banner, which grew into plane management and ultimately charter.
Today, Pinnacle employs 44 people, including pilots and maintenance technicians, many of whom have been with the company for years—some as long as two decades. “We have the culture that we all work together as a team. We want everybody to enjoy what they’re doing, and our goal is to take care of the client, to provide the utmost level of service that we can,” he says.
When Pavlicek named his company Pinnacle in 1988, it was a thoughtful decision, and he takes the mission statement, “A higher level of service,” no less seriously. A major point of pride is the company’s safety record.
Just this summer, Pinnacle earned a Platinum award from the ARGUS CHEQ program, a third-party due-diligence system for charter operators around the world. Suffice to say only 108 operators have one of those hanging on their wall. Pinnacle is also one of just two charter providers in Arizona that are IS-BAO certified, a business aircraft program in which operators enjoy such benefits as enhanced operating safety and reduced insurance rates.
“Those ratings are very hard to come by,” says Pavlicek. “We’re very proud of that.”
Pinnacle’s business is about 40 percent sales, 40 percent charter and 20 percent management and maintenance, by Pavlicek’s estimation. Each arm of the company feeds on the other, and referrals have been key since day one.
For instance, a gentleman may approach Pinnacle about acquiring a corporate aircraft. A few months down the line, the customer may want to upgrade and sell his existing plane. “Just like when you buy a house or a car, you always want to have a bigger and better house and car—they same thing happens in airplanes,” Pavlicek says.
In the meantime, the buyer will likely want Pinnacle to house, maintain and insure his new aircraft, and probably provide pilots as well. And if the plane isn’t being flown much, Pavlicek will discuss the option of chartering it during downtown to clients seeking private air travel. The practice goes a long way in offsetting an owner’s fixed costs, which are substantial.
“Maybe 90 percent of owners like to see it put off for charter,” says Pavlicek. “Let’s say an owner only flies 200 hours per year. Airplanes are designed to fly 400 to 450 hours per year. That means we can put 200 to 250 hours of charter. It doesn’t hurt [the aircraft] to fly on charter if he’s only flying minimally himself.”
An admitted people person, Pavlicek says the best part of his job is educating clients about aircraft. With his vast experience in buying and selling as well as flying and piloting, Pavlicek is uniquely qualified to counsel clients from a variety of perspectives. His passion is matching the right aircraft to the client, whether it be a charter passenger, owner, or an owner opting to sell and charter someone else’s plane. Whatever they want to do, Pinnacle can provide the service.
“Because I’m a corporate pilot—I’ve got licenses in various jets—I have type ratings in, let me think …” Pavlicek takes a minute to recall each rating and slowly counts out loud from one to 7. “Because of that knowledge,” he continues, “I can really talk to an owner and find out what their true needs are. Once I find out their goals for an aircraft, I can go through their options: Is it going to be an eight- or 15-seater; do they need to go nonstop to New York or can they stop for gas? Do they prefer to standup or is it OK to sit, and basically what is the budget?”
From turboprops to Boeing 737s, Pavlicek’s insights about everything from engine performance to cabin heights and amenities make him valuable to a spectrum of clients. “Educating people is the fun part,” he says. “It works not only for sales and acquisitions, but it also works for charter, because charter clients might not realize what they are asking for—that, yeah, this particular jet can go nonstop, but it’s smaller.”
When Pavlicek brokers an aircraft for a client/company, he also brings in the expertise of his fully staffed maintenance facility “to supplement the equation that we are buying the right aircraft for them,” he says.
Yet another avenue of Pinnacle’s aviation matchmaking involves pilots and clients. “All our pilots are full-time employees of Pinnacle,” says Pavlicek. “We don’t use contract pilots.” Pinnacle doesn’t believe in alternating their pilots for a single client either. “As far as the aircraft we manage, all have dedicated full-time pilots. When the clients get on board, they see the same two faces, and they become like family to them,” Pavlicek says, noting he and his staff work together as a team with the owners to ensure the hire is a good fit.
Some owners don’t realize they can actually generate money and offset costs by putting their aircraft on charter, an arm of the business that increasingly keeps Pavlicek busy writing proposals for prospective clients all over the United States.
Pinnacle operates its 24/7 charter and maintenance services from upstairs offices in the Southwest Jet Center, and it’s no easy task. The company has managed aircraft in Hawaii, California and New York in addition to its Scottsdale headquarters.
Display screens showing which aircraft are in the air at any given moment are mounted on the wall beneath five clocks set to different time zones.
“Let’s say one of our owners flies from Chicago to Scottsdale, and will be there for three days,” Pavlicek explains. “Our network will tell everyone in Chicago that we have a plan available to charter out of there for three days.”
Like other providers of charter flights, Pinnacle subscribes to worldwide databases that act as a clearinghouse for travelers.
“It’s very much a web-driven business,” Pavlicek explains. “Any prospective clients that are looking for a flight, they can go to our website and look for whatever they want. They can see we are going from Scottsdale to Miami, for example.” After they select the flight they’re interested in, an automatic email is sent to Pinnacle’s charter department, which spits out a quote within minutes.
Staff monitors the phones and computers during regular Arizona business hours, and rotating on-call employees take iPads with them afterhours. “You learn quickly not to make any personal plans when you’re on call,” says Marci Steenson, charter and management services coordinator. Requests for emergency flights or notifications about maintenance issues requiring rescheduling might be called in at 3 in the morning, and Steenson and the other coordinators are poised to leap out of bed and make the necessary connections.
“Many times a client will call and say ‘You are the only person answering the phone,’” Pavlicek says. “We get a lot of business that way.”
Because Pinnacle also has a license to go anywhere in the world, staff also calculate international flight plans—a task that can be intensely intricate for clients making numerous stops.
Within the next two months, Pinnacle is adding two management/charter clients to its portfolio of aircraft, a move that will help the company grow and better satisfy clients. “We’ll have more available aircraft for charter—from a large jet to a small jet,” says Pavlicek. “If a client calls and we don’t have the aircraft they want, they’ll go to a competitor, so we’re excited to expand our fleet.”
Gliding among the immaculate, gleaming planes parked inside the Pinnacle hangar—even the shining concrete floor lacks even a speck of dust—the world of private aviation seems to literally shimmer with glamour.
Pavlicek admits some of his clients are famous—golfer Phil Mickelsen, rocker Brett Michaels and actor Kurt Russell, for instance. Many are also bigwigs who fly on behalf of major corporations.
One of the benefits of private air travel is the ability to go directly to 5,000 airports in the United States, from a major hub like O’Hare to a tiny landing strip in a tiny rural town. Another boon—which Kahala’s Blackwell describes simply as “You get get a lot more done in one day—is the ease of driving right up to the aircraft and settling into an expansive leather seat, sans security, lines and traffic—especially in Scottsdale.
“We have to pinpoint the clients that have that kind of discretionary money,” Pavlicek says of Pinnacle’s future marketing strategy. “Once they get hooked on it, they realize this is an awesome tool, and after so many hours of flying, they realize it makes sense to by an aircraft.”