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Great customer service is factor for Executive clients

David Jones fell in love with airplanes, and flying, as a boy growing up in North Buffalo.

He earned his private pilot's license at 18, attended flight school in Florida and, after graduating, started an aircraft-management service based at the airport in Cheektowaga.

That company struggled, and Jones closed it in 2008, but he saw good potential for a business offering fractional ownership of private aircraft to clients in Buffalo.

He convinced Executive AirShare, a company based in the Midwestern heartland, to let him open the firm's first Northeastern outpost in Buffalo.

"Buffalo's really been sort of underserved in general aviation needs for quite a while," Jones, a regional vice president, said at the company's terminal at the Buffalo Niagara International Airport.

Executive AirShare in Buffalo has four planes and 12 full-time employees, including four recently hired pilots who are moving here from outside the area.

Its terminal and hangar are a monument to the region's industrial heritage, having served as a production facility for Curtiss P-40 Warhawk fighters during World War II.

When the the refurbished facility reopened 13 months ago, Executive AirShare had one local client. Today, the company has nine clients and is reaching out to serve clients in Rochester and Southern Ontario.

Executive AirShare competes with the major players in the fractional-ownership industry by keeping costs low and providing locally based, personalized customer service.

"We can give you this really high, concierge-level of service," Jones said.

Jones took to airplanes early in life, back to his days at St. Mark's School and Canisius High School. His brother took him up in a light airplane soon after his brother got his pilot's license, when Jones was just 13.

Jones left Canisius College after one year to attend Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla., where he says he belonged all along.

He and a partner started CTA Jet Management, soon after Jones graduated. Their business took care of all of the logistical and maintenance issues for aircraft owned by their company clients.

Jones said CTA stagnated in its 11 years of operation in the face of "hurdles" he was reluctant to detail, and he and his partner parted ways in 2008.

Jones wasn't ready to give up on the private-aircraft industry, or on Buffalo, but he wanted to employ a different business model: fractional ownership.

Instead of companies owning their own planes, with high fixed costs and a lot of downtime with the aircraft, they own a portion that entitles them to use the plane when they want it.

"Many companies, most companies, don't need the thing 365 days a year," Jones said.

NetJets and other big national companies dominate the fractional-ownership industry.

But Jones said those companies fly planes in and out of a community, as needed, so their clients never know which plane or flight crew will show up.

They also fly without any passengers as much as half the time, much like a tractor-trailer without a return load.

"The industry is inefficient," Jones said.

Executive AirShare takes a different approach, company officials said, by flying local clients out of one of its regional facilities instead of trying to cast as wide a net as possible.

Its employees get to know their clients, and the clients get to know their regular pilots and support staff, Jones said.

"We're the only ones who base the airplane where the customers are," he said.

Executive AirShare was founded in 2000, in Wichita, Kan. The company now is headquartered in Kansas City, Mo., with facilities in Wichita; Tulsa, Okla.; Oklahoma City; Dallas; and Fort Worth, Texas.

By 2009, Jones had conducted market research on the potential for fractional aircraft ownership in Buffalo, found an investor and bought an Embraer Phenom 100 – the same model of executive jet favored by Executive AirShare.

He reached out to the Kansas City firm and tried to sell its officials on Buffalo, inviting Executive AirShare officials and a few prospective Buffalo Niagara clients to a secret meeting in 2009 at the Niagara Falls International Airport.

The meeting went well, and Executive AirShare agreed in fall 2010 to lease a terminal and hangar at the Cheektowaga airport most recently used by Mercy Flight but vacant since 2006.

The hangar had once served as a final assembly and delivery center for Curtiss P-40s, and Executive AirShare has posted old photos from that era in the terminal's lounge.

Executive AirShare moved into the terminal and heated, 26,000-square-foot hangar off Cayuga Road in April 2011.

"Since launching operations 18 months ago, we have been pleased with the response we have received in Buffalo and the Great Lakes/Mid-Atlantic region and we see the potential for further growth," Keith D. Plumb, Executive AirShare's president and chief operating officer, said in an email.

Executive AirShare clients like the convenience of driving into the company's hangar, stepping out of their vehicles and walking right onto the plane, without the hassles of the modern-day commercial airline experience.

Executive AirShare's planes, which seat between four and nine passengers, also can get clients closer to their final destination by flying into smaller, regional airports.

The company's employees keep a dossier on each client, and their preferred drinks and newspapers are stocked on the plane before each flight.

Federal regulations require each client to own at least one-sixteenth of a plane.

This buys clients of the major national companies a standard 50 hours of flying time per year, Jones said. Executive AirShare, however, goes by flying days, not hours, and one-sixteenth of a plane provides a client with 20 flying days per year.

A one-sixteenth share in the company's Embraer Phenom 100 costs $299,500, plus $3,650 in fixed monthly costs and $1,450 for each hour of flying time, mainly for fuel.

Jones bristles at criticism of the industry by those who assume only members of the 1 percent can afford to fly on private aircraft. "I hear the term ‘fat cat' and I want to dive under the desk," he said.

Executive AirShare also has a wholly owned subsidiary, Executive Flight Services, which offers aircraft-management and charter services at Buffalo and several other sites.

Jones believes the company is well-positioned to expand out from Buffalo to other parts of upstate New York and the Northeast, with Buffalo serving as a regional headquarters and maintenance hub.

Jones hopes to pick up more clients as their contracts with national fractional-ownership companies expire. "We're slowly trying to bring all of this money back" to Buffalo Niagara, Jones said.

email: swatson@buffnews.com