Prepare for Takeoff

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A solid bellwether of an economic recovery is a rise in corporate air travel. If executives, managers, and entrepreneurs are increasingly using private aircraft amid an economic recession, it’s a good sign a recovery is around the corner.

“We’re ahead of things as it relates to economic activity, and our business is picking up,” says Rick M. Nini, president and CEO of Corporate Eagle Cos. at Oakland County International Airport in Waterford Township. “There are more businesspeople flying to multiple locations where they operate facilities. They’re also looking to gain new business.”

Still, the recovery is not yet complete. Nini says the number of flights at his company was down 36 percent in 2009 over the previous year. In recent months, however, new clients have been added while existing ones are boosting their airtime.

“It’s a lot better than it was, but we still have a ways to go to get back to 2007, which was a great year for us,” Nini says.

Nini says the low point for the industry was the financial meltdown in the fall of 2008, which contributed to a serious downturn in both private and commercial air travel. It didn’t help that members of Congress were scolding executives from the Big Three automakers at the time for using corporate jets to travel to Washington, where they were asking for government loans (Ford chose not to seek federal assistance).

“It was like the lights went out on our industry,” Nini says. But even as private flights declined, he knew a rebound would eventually come. “When you’re charged with overseeing plants and facilities in multiple locations, there comes a point where commercial air travel doesn’t make sense, especially with all of the security requirements.”

Corporate Eagle offers a local fractional jet ownership program, where members buy or lease a share of an aircraft based on their planned usage. Members are charged a fixed monthly management fee that covers such common costs as aircraft capital improvements, insurance, and facility management.

While competing private aircraft operators offer different programs, Nini says rising requests among his clients for private air travel to Florida has him eyeing an expansion in the Tampa Bay area, specifically at the St. Petersburg Clearwater International Airport. The company currently leases space at the airport, but plans to build two, 30,000-square-foot hangars in the next few years. “We’d like to do it sooner, rather than later,” Nini says.

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