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Walkabout Air Lifts Off

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  • | 6:00 p.m. June 15, 2007
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Walkabout Air Lifts Off

COMPANIES by Dave Szymanski | Tampa Bay Editor

By offering an array of services and simple fees, the executive aircraft services company wants to double the number of planes it services by year's end.

This year's growth plan for 12-year-old Tampa-based Walkabout Air is simple: Develop more clients in the 50 miles around the Tampa Bay area.

For 2008 and beyond, the circles of influence get wider, like the circling arcs the company's pilots make while waiting to land all over the world. Phase two is a 100-mile ring that includes Ocala, Orlando and Vero Beach.

And what will it take to get the private executive aircraft services company there? Service, service and more service.

"The president's key objective is service," says Taylor Saunders, vice president of Walkabout Air and one of its pilots. "He wants our company to offer outstanding service to allow us to keep customers and grow the business. In New York, I once took a cab across town to get chocolates for a customer, so they would be on the plane."

Revenues at the company have steadily increased, along with profits. Robert Basham, one of the trio of founders of Tampa-based Outback Steakhouse Inc. founded Walkabout in 1995. He remains its president. Corporately, Walkabout is a separate and independent company.

Walkabout has grown from three planes and about six pilots six years ago to 11 planes and 20 pilots. It continues to add planes and internal staff (schedulers, bookkeepers, mechanics and a newly hired director of operations), and has expanded its charter business in the past year. Walkabout has 30 employees and 11 planes.

Although it services clients locally, it flies globally. Walkabout pilots have been as far as Europe, California and New York.

Walkabout, borrowing from the Australian Outback theme, started by just offering charter air service for local businesses. It then morphed into an aircraft management firm as more companies bought their own planes.

Company executives, such as Saunders and Bill Clarke, continue to fly for Walkabout so they can keep up with aviation industry standards. Twelve-hour days are not uncommon.

"There's nothing we would ask someone to do that we wouldn't do ourselves," Saunders says. "We all need to be as flexible as we can. The logistics and dynamics are pretty crazy in this business."

The company serves a growing number of upper-end customers, including athletes, politicians, military generals, entertainers, musicians and business people. About 30% of its trips are business-related, while about 70% is leisure travel. People take trips to events such as the Super Bowl, The Final Four and The Masters. One customer lives in Aspen, Colorado in the summer and in Florida in the winter.

"I'm chasing boats or taking people snow skiing," Saunders says. "It's a neat job."

Ever been star struck?

"Not really," Saunders says. "I'm serving them. I want their experience to be excellent. I'm really like the bus driver, in a way."

Walkabout is non-scheduled, meaning that the jet is waiting for the client. The customer just drives up, gets out of his car and walks to the aircraft. Even his car can be washed and detailed. Walkabout flies to airports closest to the destination, which isn't always the major airports. This saves time and money.

Martin Garcia, chief executive of Pine Hill Capital Partners in Tampa, came to Walkabout Air after working with a national fractional aviation company for three years. A fractional company charges customers a fee to use aircraft. When it became economical to buy his own plane, Garcia did and went to Walkabout in December 2005 to manage it.

"I own a plane but don't want to be responsible for servicing the aircraft," Garcia says. "They do all of that for me."

"Flying is a life or death issue," he adds. "The three issues I looked at were safety, economics and convenience. For safety, they were at the top of the list. Their pricing is fair. And they are convenient. And I'm a demanding guy."

Want to hit four or five cities in a day to visit corporate locations? Chartering a private plane may be the answer. Want to impress your client? Maybe the bigger private jet will work better than the smaller prop plane. Need to economize? The smaller plane might be best.

In any scenario, executive jets are more private and more flexible in scheduling.

"These people don't want to go to the airlines and be mobbed," Saunders says. "If you're late, the pilot and crew are waiting for you. There's more flexibility for business trips."

Money and amenities

There is a price to pay for this privacy. The fee for the smallest plane is $1,100 an hour. For the Gulfstream, it's $4,800.

Walkabout does not own any planes or jets. It manages aircraft for customers and finds customers to use those aircraft when those owners aren't. It now manages nine kinds of aircraft, from the King Air 90, a plane that seats five; to the Falcon 50, which seats nine; to the Gulfstream III, a jet that can handle 14 people.

The gleaming white vehicles are lined up in the hangar on a clean concrete floor at company headquarters, just south of Tampa International Airport and west of International Plaza in Tampa's Westshore business district.

Walkabout Air is a member of NBAA National Business Aviation Association and NATA, the National Air Transportation Association.

"The key thing is we run and operate the airplanes like a Fortune 500 company," Saunders says. "All are maintained top-notch. Training is top-notch."

Clients span both sides of Tampa Bay. Staff is on call 24/7.

"The only true unavailable time is when we're in the air," Saunders says. To avoid the hassle of answering services, Saunders and Clarke give clients and potential clients their cellular telephone numbers so they can book flights.

The aircraft are equipped with all the comforts, such as leather seats, leg rests, tables, bars, couches, satellite radio, Playstations, wider windows and televisions. All manner of food and drink, from champagne to chicken wings, can be ordered and ready to go for you on the plane.

Walkabout also offers counseling to clients buying or selling an aircraft. It takes customers through the sales process.

Despite 9-11, more and more aircraft have entered the industry over the years, meaning more competition. Despite leaps in technology, including teleconferencing, business people still find the need to meet in person, Saunders says.

"Technology is great, but relationships still need face-to-face meetings," he says.

To help its clients who own aircraft, Walkabout this year went to a standard $135 monthly maintenance fee for every hour the plane flies rather than breaking out separate charges for different services. Corporate attorneys and accountants cheered.

"We thought it was more fair," Saunders says. "We are trying to simplify things for bookkeeping and taxes. They love it."

A chunk of time is spent advising clients on the right aircraft to charter. If you economize with a smaller aircraft, but it has to refuel on the way, you're losing time. Similarly, if you only have a handful of people, you won't need the largest jet.

"There's no reason to charter a big plane if you can do the same trip for half the cost with a smaller aircraft," Saunders says. "We want to be your one-stop shop. We will find the right plane for them."

Business ebbs and flows for Walkabout. The summer starts slow at first, and then picks up with leisure travel. Falls starts slow, and then picks up with college football season. Holidays are always busy. After Jan. 1, it's quiet.

"The waves of business are good for us and the flight crews," Saunders says. "It gives us a breather and let's everyone spend time with their families."

Clarke looks out the windows at the company's headquarters, out toward the runway where a private jet and a plane are parked under a taunt white fabric canopy. Tampa International Airport is clearly visible in the nearby distance.

"The growth is pretty much limitless," he says.

Someday, Walkabout would like to have executive planes and jets based all over the country. The key, like the restaurant business for Outback, will be maintaining the same quality level in training, products and service, Saunders said. It garners a lot of business through referrals.

"We're learning from our customers," Saunders says. "We invite any suggestions. We don't make any money unless the planes are flying. We're not going to gouge our customers. The best sales tool is satisfied customers. We couldn't be happier with the growth we've had. We want to double our size to 20 aircraft by the end of the year."


Company. Walkabout Air

Industry. Aircraft charter and management

Key. Customer service and more customer service, including keeping the arrangement simple.



• Headquarters: Tampa, in the Westshore area near Tampa International Airport

• Ownership: Privately held. Founded by Outback Steakhouse founder Robert Basham

• Executives: President, Robert Basham; Vice President, Taylor Saunders; Chief Pilot, Bill Clarke

• Employees: 30, including 20 pilots

• Size of aircraft: From 5-seat King Air 90 to 14-seat Gulfstream III.

• Breakdown: About 70% leisure flights and 30% business-related flights.


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