How many CEOs consider the economic crash a great opportunity? Especially for a company that sells the symbol of corporate excess: the private jet.
"We caught a major break," said Steven Santo, chief executive at Avantair, which employs 300 at its headquarters and maintenance base in a cavernous hangar at St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport. "We were in the right place at the right time."
Avantair sells trips on its fleet of 55 sleek Piaggio Avanti aircraft. Customers typically purchase a share of the plane, complete with a crew, to fly wherever and whenever they want. They also can buy a set number of flying hours.
The business, called "fractional ownership," is a cheaper alternative to owning a corporate jet or hiring charter services. Avantair positions itself as the value play among fractional operators. A 21/2-hour flight to New York costs about $6,500, a lot cheaper than competitors charge, Santo said. That's because the Piaggio is powered by rear-facing, turbo-prop engines that burn far less fuel than pure jets while cruising at close to jet speeds.
After executives of the Big Three automakers flew luxury jets to Washington, D.C., to plead for a federal bailout in 2008, companies looked to ditch the image of high-flying fat cats.
"The economy was pushing people to look at the money they were spending and flying (private jets) came under attack," Santo said. "You had a bunch of CEOs who felt bad about flying on a big Gulfstream."
Santo pitched his service to corporate directors as a way to fly efficiently at a cost competitive with business fares on commercial airlines. Avantair's roster of pubic company customers went from a handful to more than 100, he said, including almost every major bank.
On Tuesday, Avantair — which averages about 80 flights a day in North America, Mexico and the Caribbean — showed off its new control center. Three 200-inch projection screens dominated an entire wall. Operations personnel followed dozens of symbols representing flights across the country flashed on the middle screen, flanked by news on CNN and the Weather Channel.
"We needed to create a space where people could communicate without having to scream (between offices) at each other," Santo said.