Words by Tim Kern
With 104 publicly owned, public-use airports and three international airports, plus numerous charter, training, Part 141 facilities and business jet manufacturer Gulfstream in Savannah, Georgia’s many attractions and its strategic location attract their share of business flying.
Georgia is known as The Gateway to Everywhere in the world of commercial aviation, courtesy of the world’s heaviest-trafficked airport, Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. Although travelers generally prefer drinking anti-freeze to flying through Atlanta, those who travel by private aviation know that the airspace around Georgia’s capital city is not just among the busiest in the world, it is also among the best-managed. The airports near Atlanta – Fulton County, DeKalb-Peachtree, and others are well attended, providing charter service and catering to corporate aircraft, often with both FBOs and repair stations on-site.
To the many FBOs, owners, and operators of aviation businesses in Georgia there are several important issues. Firstly, it is apparent that the immediate effect of the pandemic is all but over. But the rumors of a pilot shortage are not exaggerated. New aircraft are difficult to obtain and used aircraft are in short supply.
Fuel prices also seem to have stabilized for now, but they remain high. All this means that the “recovery” has begun, but both availability and the high cost of aircraft, crews, and capital are holding back expansion.
Georgia’s capital Atlanta has a large and growing population. The metro area has nearly quintupled since 1972 to over six million. Supported by Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, the Atlanta area has grown to become the seventh-largest population center and market area in the USA. Along with its mighty population of people, Georgia has the fifth-largest fleet of private jets of the fifty states in the Republic.
Aviation in Georgia begins with the Epps family. In 1907, Ben Epps became the first aviator in Georgia. With aviation having been in the family, Pat Epps started Epps Aviation in the 1960s, and the family still runs this organization of now over 150 people. Today, the company handles aircraft management, charter, maintenance, testing, avionics, aircraft inspections and sales, FBO services and a thriving parts business from its location at DeKalb-Peachtree Airport. Another bit of Ben’s legacy can also be found in the name of Ben Epps Airport in Athens.
Located in Chamblee, just north of Atlanta is DeKalb-Peachtree Airport and FBO Atlantic Aviation. General manager there Paul Reynolds says his traffic “comes from all over – from the West Coast, New York, Florida, Texas,” and that about 70% of the traffic he sees is transient. The mild weather and proximity to the more-affluent suburbs of Atlanta has kept the airport in a good position to survive the recent and ongoing choppy economic environment.
Reynolds says the immediate post-Covid roar in private travel has become “a more steady flow of traffic”. This trend is probably due to fluctuating fuel prices and the current general economic state. But he adds, “It’s not affecting the bigger jets as much as the smaller ones and it’s not affecting corporate as much as private travel.”
Speaking of activity and the mix of aircraft he is seeing on the apron he says, “There seems to be a shift in sales to larger machines. The biggest change seems to be from midsize to super-midsize.”
At Fulton County Executive Airport, Andrew Ash, vice president and general manager of Hill Aircraft says, “We serve a variety of aircraft operations daily. Our based and transient operations are a good mix of pistons, helicopters, turboprops, and jets up to the large cabin-class aircraft types.
“We take care of everyone with red carpet treatment from the private aircraft owner to the corporate flight departments coming to Atlanta. There is a growing awareness of the benefits we offer here as an executive-level airport, including our proximity to the city and major metro business districts.
“Our traffic comes from all over the country, with a large portion among the Southeast and East Coast. West Coast and Central US is significant for us as well. Internationally, we serve aircraft operations primarily from the Caribbean, Canada, Mexico and South America. Occasionally we serve some from Europe.
“Our volumes are greater than pre-pandemic, some of that is due to the increase in Atlanta traffic. There are more people visiting, going to conferences and sporting events. There are a lot of corporations making their headquarters here.
“The mix is the natural effect of a growing Atlanta. Compared to pre-pandemic, our business is up a lot from both existing and new customers. Frankly, people like operating in and out of this airport. We are a long standing, family-run business in Atlanta,” explains Ash.
Guy Hill Senior started the business in Atlanta in 1955. His son Guy Hill Jr serves today as president and CEO. “We’ve expanded over the years to become a full service FBO,” says Ash. “We offer Part 135 charter and aircraft management services. Being more of a regional boutique charter operator, we primarily serve and Atlanta and Southeast-based clientele.
“Our management specialization is light to mid-size turbine aircraft – Citations, CJs, King Airs. We also have a solid Part 145 repair station with factory-trained technicians and a parts department with the capability to source and ship parts worldwide. Our services include pre-purchase inspections, routine scheduled inspections, and general line maintenance to name a few.”
Regarding fuel, there are a lot of factors that weren’t present at the airport in 2019 that have influenced cost, including international and economic challenges. “Fuel prices have been more volatile over the last year, though not as much since summer. It seems that it hasn’t significantly impacted business on a large scale,” Ash says. “It matters, but in the grand scheme of things – like food and other services – everybody’s come to expect price increases on everything in the last year.”
Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport is about 45 miles (72km) south of Hilton Head, which is in South Carolina and has its own small airport on the island. The airport is famous not only for its international status but also because it is home to Gulfstream Aerospace, which has its own special operations, from red-carpet FBO service to full maintenance and anything else you can need or think of – if you’re in the right kind of airplane.
Other services at Savannah/Hilton Head include Signature Flight Support and Sheltair, each with a full lineup of FBO services.
Cobb County International Airport
Cobb County International Airport – McCollum Field is an international airport located around 20 minutes drive northwest of Atlanta in Kennesaw. It is home to five flight schools and Atlanta Air Charter, an on-demand 24/7 full-service private air charter company specializing in business, leisure, cargo, and medical / organ transport.
LeeAnn Sturgeon, the director of charter service at Atlanta Air Charter says, “We are family-owned and registered as a veteran-owned small business. We provide cost-effective travel through a team of outstanding pilots and mechanics while maintaining the Gold Argus rating for 100% Safety Standards.
“We’ve been in business over twenty years and maintain a fleet of three Beechcraft 200 King Airs to cover our demand. We offer an affordable option for private air charter through a prepaid program.
“Our turboprop aircraft enable us to service a wide array of smaller locations allowing us to provide services for medical transport and/or the business and vacation traveler looking to avoid the larger airports.”
Sturgeon admits that the past couple of years have been volatile, but every surprise promotes a solution.
“We have optimized our fueling by hedging where the purchases are made in addition to instituting a small fuel surcharge which is common in the private air travel industry.”
The recovery from the pandemic has been strong, but it has brought its own challenges. “Business is far better than during the pandemic, says Sturgeon. “We have been looking to add to our fleet, but the aircraft market is like that of the recent housing market– pricing is overinflated.”
As for the future, Sturgeon says, “We are continually looking for ways to increase our business base, but in sum, we are in a very good place.”
Also on the field at Cobb County International Airport is Hawthorne Global Aviation Services, where you’ll be offered rental and courtesy cars, de-icing, and maintenance services. The US Customs office on-site offers services 24/7 every day of the year with advanced notice and an appointment. Flightworks, Priority Jet, Peach Jet, and Aviation Development Group, also at Cobb County all offer charters and fleet management services.
In sum, an increase in charter activity in Georgia is being fueled by growth at Atlanta and new customers more generally. Both trends look set to continue and business aviation is set to keep growing in the state.