By Jimmy Magahern / Photos courtesy StandardAero
It’s the day before Thanksgiving, traditionally one of the busiest air travel days of the year. But the lobby of this particular terminal is quiet, with only one silver-haired businessman toting an Eddie Bauer rolling duffel, another man in full pilot regalia (Sully mustache included) watching the runway from the passenger lounge, and, talking to the concierge, one young couple and their two irrepressible kids – who, judging from their chocolate-stained chipmunk cheeks, have already discovered the jars of free M&Ms in the cafe.
Stepping into the lobby of Signature Flight Support’s Scottsdale terminal, bordering the Scottsdale Airport runway just north of Bennett Dorrance’s Hangar One, can feel like stepping back in time. While the interior design reflects nothing but cutting-edge tech, the small-scale, relaxed pace of the place definitely feels of another time.
“I liken it to the golden days of airline travel,” says Greg Gibson, Signature’s general manager. “Back in the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s, when people dressed up to fly, they didn’t have to go through security. It was an event, you know. It was very special. This place reminds me of that era: high touch, very personalized, very classy.”
The same attributes could be applied to many of the businesses connected to aviation around the Scottsdale Airport, which strive to serve the type of clientele that prefers flying their own private jets into a smaller airport that, at least until the completion of its current $27 million renovation, has managed to retain that golden age ambience. The City of Scottsdale lists nearly 125 aviation-related businesses in or near the Airpark, from aircraft charter services, aircraft rental and flight training to in-flight catering, hangar leasing, aircraft maintenance and repair and even aircraft washing. Together they cater to a type of air traveler who loves the skies but loathes the endless concourses and TSA lines of the big international airports – and who can afford the alternative.
Signature Flight Support is one of two FBOs, or “fixed-base operators,” located adjacent to Scottsdale Airport. The term dates back to 1926, when land-owning businesses offering support services to airplane operators felt a need to distinguish themselves from traveling aviators, or “barnstormers.” Today an FBO is any airstrip-adjacent business operation that provides fueling, hangar space, aircraft maintenance, taxiing and more to the private jet set.
“I didn’t know what an FBO was myself until about seven years ago, when I joined Signature,” says Gibson, an aviation lifer who started out in the industry 28 years ago as a flight attendant for Continental Airlines, served some hard time in baggage handling and moved on to management positions with United and American.
“Basically, it’s a little airport,” Gibson says. “It’s that old school airline service people are wanting again. They want it, and they’re willing to pay for it.”
The services FBOs provide don’t come cheap, but they’re within the budgets of “the executives, the celebrities, the sports figures” Gibson says make up the bulk of Signature’s client base.
“The busiest times we have here center around the big events that happen around the Airpark: Barrett-Jackson, the Phoenix Open, the Arabian horse show,” he says. “For those events, there are always lots of people coming in on the jets.”
At those times, Gibson says, watching all the aviation support services rally to take care of the arriving private aircraft is what the Scottsdale Airpark is all about.
“It’s like watching a pit crew that are bringing the airplanes in, getting them into the hangars and taking care of the flyers’ needs before they even have to ask for it,” he says. “Watching that at this airport is a privilege and a pleasure for me. Because we’re all passionate about aviation. And it’s exciting to be part of that.”
Spreading Scottsdale’s Wings
While aviation may be at the heart of the Scottsdale Airpark, the business makeup of the area has expanded over the years to include much more than just companies focused on flying.
“We would never want, in any way, to negate the tremendous value of the airport and all the related industry that supports aviation, because that’s really the heart and the core of the Airpark,” says Danielle Casey, economic development director for the City of Scottsdale. “However, if you look at our major employment sectors, over 13 percent of the employment in the airpark is in retail, 10 percent is in health care and another 7 percent is focused on professional scientific and technical services. And then you also have a huge density for office use. So when you look at the dominant uses, it’s not all aviation.”
“A lot of the Airpark businesses are actually geared to cybersecurity and financial institutions,” adds Christian Green, the city’s economic development manager. “Plus you have a lot of businesses focused on what we call the Cure Corridor, the medical solutions incubator that’s grown there.”
Updating how people, both in-state and out-of-state, view the Scottsdale Airpark is a matter the city has been working on in recent months, Casey says. “One thing that we did recently to help encourage revitalization and investment into the airpark was, we invited people that are experts in the development field to focus on the airpark and the type of development mix we have up there. What are they seeing in trends, what are they seeing in terms of what companies want when they go into the area? What’s changing in the dynamic of how buildings are used, and what’s their perception of the airpark?”
Casey says the feedback they got from the focus group pointed to the Airpark’s heightened profile as an attractive choice for corporations to build their headquarters in, “not just because it’s close to where executives can fly in and out of in their private jets, but also because the area has amazing executive housing and a lifestyle supported by a variety of amenities that have grown in that area over the last few decades,” she says. “So many companies are chasing talent, and you need good workforce housing and amenities like walkable areas and restaurants that people can get to.”
One of the consequences of filling up the Airpark with businesses unrelated to aviation is that some companies that directly serve the airport have had to locate farther away.
Such would appear to be the case for StandardAero Business Aviation, one of the world’s largest independent providers of aviation services, which in 2015 relocated its headquarters from a warehouse district in Tempe to the Scottsdale Spectrum office park, located northwest of Lincoln Drive and Scottsdale Road.
Marc McGowan, StandardAero’s president, is quick to point out that the company, whose services include airplane engine and airframe maintenance, repair and overhaul, engineering services and interior completions and paint applications, did have a presence at the Scottsdale Airport for a time.
“In 2005, StandardAero owned Landmark Aviation and the FBO at SDL,” he says, referring to the airport by its FAA location identifier. “When the company was sold to Dubai Aerospace Enterprise in 2007, Landmark was divested and StandardAero exited the FBO business and moved forward with its four primary business aviation repair facilities located on airfields at Los Angeles International Airport; Houston George Bush International Airport; Springfield, Illinois Airport; and Augusta, Georgia Airport.”
As part of the buyout, StandardAero inherited the Garrett Aviation Division, part of a Phoenix-area legacy in business aviation that at different times was known as AiResearch and AlliedSignal.
McGowan says the company, whose customers include not just individual aircraft owners but also large commercial airlines, corporate flight departments and military operators, still serves business aviation operators at the Scottsdale Airport, but now it does so through one of its 14 mobile service teams, which provide 24/7 customer support onsite at the airport. With more than 40 primary operating locations in North America, Europe, Asia, Australia and Africa, however, StandardAero’s headquarters don’t need to be located at any one airport. In November, the company also acquired Vector Aerospace from Airbus, a global aerospace maintenance, repair and overhaul company that employs approximately 2,200 people in 22 locations.
Still, with the city focused on making the Airpark more attractive to big corporations, it’s surprising that a company with such a rich local history in aviation would chose to locate nearly seven miles south of the airport. In the Airpark’s ambitions to become known for more than just aviation, is it pushing away companies that most belong near the airstrip?
Casey acknowledges that the Airpark will always have a strong mix of aviation businesses at its core. She points to specialty firms like SkyMed, which provides emergency travel services (including organized air evacuations) for frequent travelers, and Dillon Aero, which builds mountings for Gatling guns on military helicopters, as examples. “A lot of government contracts and things that are important to Uncle Sam happen at the Airpark,” she says. “And of course there’s always a lot of flight training going on.”
But the Airpark’s future appears to depend on expanding the public’s perception of the area beyond flight schools and airplane hangars.
“The Chamber of Commerce’s airpark committee has also been talking about how to promote the area, so that when people hear ‘Scottsdale Airpark,’ they think about more than just aviation,” Casey says. “There’s so much more going on at the Airpark besides that.”