Tampa Bay lands more validation as a rising star of the South
Last year, 19.6 million passengers landed at Tampa International Airport aboard one of 25 airlines that serve North America’s 29th busiest airport — clear confirmation the Tampa area has arrived as a metropolitan destination.
But it is increasing corporate traffic at TIA’s two full-service fixed-based operators’ terminals — up 8.5% in 2017 — that signal the Tampa area has truly arrived as a major business destination. “Our general aviation business is really important to the airport and to the community,” says Tampa International Airport Director of General Aviation Brett Fay. “It is really a gateway to the community for the business traveler.”
“Tampa is absolutely growing its corporate presence,” says Todd Anderson, senior vice president for real estate and development for Sheltair, which operates one of TIA’s fixed-based operators (FBOs.) “There are more corporations and affluent people in town. We see this market continuing to grow.”
The Federal Aviation Authority defines FBOs as a general aviation concession granted by an airport board to provide fueling, hangar services, tie-down, parking, aircraft rental, aircraft maintenance, flight instruction and terminal amenities, including lounges and restaurants. General aviation/corporate aviation is a $150 billion annual industry that generates 1.2 million jobs. The rise and fall of the industry, adds Fay, is an economic indicator. Says Fay: “It is something we give considerable attention to.”
Sheltair purchased the former Tampa Jet Center in 2016, expanding its FBO footprint to 17 airports, including 11 in Florida, five in New York and one in Georgia. The list also includes facilities in St. Petersburg and Lakeland. The privately-owned company has more recently invested $6.5 million in its 7.5-acre, 170,000-square-foot TIA complex, adding a fifth hangar and office space as part of a 32,000-square-foot expansion. The project is to keep pace with growing demand for private passenger services and aircraft maintenance and housing.
“Our growth really has a lot to do with what is happening with the city itself,” Anderson said. “It really runs parallel to the growth the city is experiencing.”
IN THE AIR
Founded as Holland Builders in 1963 by Jerry Holland, who still serves as Chairman/CEO, Sheltair’s roots are as a construction company that developed South Florida residential neighborhoods and retail centers.
After building hangars in Fort Lauderdale to house private aircraft, in the early 1980s Holland Builders created a property leasing division, Sheltair Aviation Facilities — "shelter for aircraft" — to manage its own hangars and airport office space. In 1988, Sheltair ventured into the general aviation business, opening its first two FBOs, building the Fort Lauderdale Jet Center and acquiring the Daytona Beach Jet Center, offering fuel and ground services for private fleets.
Three decades later the company is Florida’s largest, privately owned FBO network, with three divisions — Sheltair Aviation Services, Sheltair Aviation Facilities and Holland Builders. It has 450 employees spread through 17 FBOs, and leases more than 3 million square feet of commercial space to more than 1,200 tenants at 21 airports in three states. It also builds and finances hangers for third parties.
Fay, at TIA, says Sheltair is highly regarded in the general aviation sector. “I have had the pleasure to work with Sheltair when I was at Lakeland,” says Fay, before he took the post at TIA in September 2017. “They are a great business aviation operator.”
Anderson says a key to Sheltair’s success is its identity remains rooted on the ground, not the sky. “We look at the real estate business first,” he says. “We are a real estate development firm that specializes in aviation properties and services.”
That makes Sheltair an anomaly in the industry.
“The FBO is really a sister company of the real estate business,” adds Anderson, who joined Sheltair in 2000. “We build our own hangars and, in essence, reach back to assist the FBO side of the house” to manage its terminals and hangars.
Another key to the success: the company is filled with air travel junkies.
“There are a lot of different articles and publications on how to do things but there is no book or manual, per se, for passion,” Anderson says. “There is a passion for aviation that we all have. Everyone in the company is deeply rooted in aviation. Everyone has that passion.”
One of the biggest challenges Sheltair faces is consolidation stemming from chains and networks replacing independent FBOs. According to Aviation Business Strategies Group, an FBO consulting firm, in the early 1980s there were as many as 10,000 FBOs in the United States. Today there are less than 3,500. “The evolution has been to (have) five or six large chain-like network operators,” Anderson says.
Among them is Signature Flight Support, the first FBO chain to exceed 200 sites worldwide — and Sheltair’s direct competition as TIA’s other FBO operator after its 2016 purchase of Landmark Aviation.
Anderson says Sheltair’s capacities as a builder, real estate developer and property manager made it a beneficiary of the FBO consolidation trend of the early 2000s. That model later helped it weather the 2008-09 recession, when the business aviation market suffered a 25% decline in revenues, according to Aviation Research Group/U.S.
Sheltair launched its first FBO foray outside Florida by out-bidding Signature for the concession at New York’s LaGuardia Airport in 2007. It was awarded a contract for one of two FBOs at New York’s JFK Airport in 2012. “What we saw with the New York marketplace was a lot of north-south travel. We saw some synergies in connecting our marketplace with New York,” Anderson says.
But, again, Sheltair didn’t expand solely for air routes, but with eyes on commercial development. “We also saw opportunity to expand our real estate footprint in New York,” Anderson said.
In establishing FBOs in affluent Long Island suburbs, Sheltair replicated its Florida model by building, leasing and managing office and hangar space.
Anderson says Sheltair’s emphasis going forward is internal consolidation. “We have more people coming into our facilities looking for hangar space,” he says. “The other thing that we are seeing is aircraft are getting bigger. Larger aircraft results in more demand for hanger space.”
‘There are more corporations and affluent people in town. We see (the Tampa) market continuing to grow.” Todd Anderson, Sheltair
That’s why Sheltair is adding hangars or expanding them at many of its properties. When it renovated the TIA Jet Center, for example, it built a fifth hangar with 130-by-230-foot dimensions and 28-foot-tall doors to accommodate larger corporate jets. “These are jets with much larger cabins where you can stand and walk around, seating eight to 12 people,” Anderson says.
Variations in jet fuel prices and hurricanes are among disruptions that could affect Sheltair’s bottom line, but both are eternal factors in aviation. Another looming issue: the Trump Administration’s selective steel tariffs, if sustained, says Anderson, could affect Sheltair’s construction operations. “If we see prices really escalating, the cost of these hangars will escalate, too,” he said. “That doesn’t play well for us.”
PASSION: NO SUBSTITUTE
But perhaps the biggest challenge to an FBO’s success is the ambient perception that private jets are exclusively for those who have “made it” — mega-wealthy tycoons and celebrities.
Most private aircraft aren’t owned by individuals, but are leased from commercial fleets. They are utilitarian “tools” that can efficiently get passengers from point-to-point quickly — not just in the air, but on the ground, Anderson says.
"There’s a luxury aspect to them, but they are a tool,” he says. “Corporate, business travel is a different type of travel than the general public experiences. People often spend more time getting to the airport, park cars, go through the security checks, the waits. Corporate jets get you from point A to point B much faster, mostly on the ground, in getting customers in and out of the airport.”
That being said, Sheltair’s FBOs do house and service aircraft that shuttle rock stars, high-profile executives, movie stars and sports teams. “We handle a couple of local sports teams — the Lightning and the Rays from time to time. We also handle visiting teams, college teams,” Anderson says, noting Sheltair and Signature accommodated more than 300 private aircraft at their TIA FBOs for the 2017 NCAA National Football Championship game between Clemson and Alabama.
“The future of this FBO market is certainly bright,” Anderson says. “There is more wealth and affluence being generated here and more companies are using private aircraft. We’re really happy to be a part of the Tampa community and have visions to continue to grow our business in Tampa.”