Originally published in Business Digest, August 1998

Flying High

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

Bill Burdet Bill Burdet grew up on a farm in Central Vermont and is now the facility manager at Pratt and Whitney Engine Services at Burlington International Airport.

There can't be many people in Chittenden County unaware of the growth activity that's been going on at Burlington International Airport the last couple of years. Much of it has been the kind of construction visible to anybody with business at the airport or just driving by. There's a big, new parking garage, which has dramatically improved your chances of finding a legal space to leave your car; both runways have been expanded by 500 feet to create safety overruns for emergency situations; and a 15,000-square-foot terminal expansion will officially open at a ribbon-cutting ceremony set for Aug. 21.

But behind those obviously visible enrichments, other things are happening that help Burlington International continue to be an appealing airport facility from the perspectives of those who use it as a center of operations. For example, says Dick Corley, owner of Bowl New England and a 16-year airport commissioner who just retired as member and chair of that group in June, "One of the most significant things we did, and we just got it operational, is an ILS (instrument landing system) that we installed on Runway 33, the runway to the north." This is significant because airplanes must land into the wind, which, in the wintertime, blows mostly from the north. Previously, when weather was bad, flights had to be canceled if visual landings were not possible on that runway. This addition means that now, both runways have ILS.

Another not-so-visible- to-the-public change was the purchase last fall by Valet Air of Innotech, the FBO (fixed-base operator), the airport's provider of services, such as fueling, aircraft maintenance, flight training and aircraft rental. "We do all the fueling at the airport now, including the airlines, about half a million gallons a month," says Andrew Button, Valet Air's president since he and his father, Henry, purchased the company in March 1997. "We put in a new 40,000-gallon fuel storage facility."

Valet Air has a flight school with six planes and eight charter aircraft, including a jet that was added to the fleet last winter. There are 17 pilots and the total staff has reached 75. In June Valet Air bought Upstate Air Center, the FBO in Plattsburgh, N.Y. "We do all of the aircraft maintenance at Burlington and Plattsburgh," Button says, "and all the fueling in Plattsburgh."

Airport building projects have been going on behind the scenes, as well, including a new, 15,000-square-foot structure for Aviatron Inc. and a 40,000-square-foot hangar and office building for Pratt & Whitney Engine Services.

Aviatron is an FAA-certified facility specializing in aircraft accessory component overhaul and repair. "We work on things like fuel lines, brakes or landing gear for turbine- powered commercial planes and helicopters," says Martin Lynch, operations manager. Aviatron has been at the Burlington airport for nine years, coming here as an offshoot of its Montreal facility. The company also has locations in Los Angeles and Nassau.

"The airport and the city were very progressive in assisting us in finding a location and building a new facility to meet our requirements," Lynch adds, noting the scarcity of available real estate around the airport.

Corley cited the Pratt & Whitney project, opened in April of last year, as a perfect example of the kind of cooperation the Airport Commission encourages with its tenants. Bill Burdet, facility manager for the Pratt & Whitney service center, says he "can't say enough nice things about the airport. They kept us here!" he exclaims, explaining that there was, at one time, a move to take the turbine engine repair operation out of state. "But the airport came through and helped us do this facility. The Army needs some sort of recognition, too, because they were nice enough to give us some of their land -- this was their land. We lease from the airport, but the Army donated the land."

Burdet says Burlington is one of seven such facilities that service Pratt & Whitney general aviation turbine engines in the United States. The engines power corporate and private jets, corporate helicopters and some commuter airplanes. Commercial and military aircraft engines are serviced elsewhere. The new building includes a 20,000-square-foot hangar that the company's previous site, which was 18,000 square feet overall, lacked. Burlington is one of only three sites with a hangar, making it possible for customers to fly their planes in for service. The hangar can house up to six aircraft at one time; and there is also mail-in work, says Burdet. Burlington technicians have worked on engines for planes owned by celebrities, corporations and everyday individuals.

Burlington was Pratt & Whitney's first such facility. It started about 20 years ago, when the aircraft engine manufacturer contracted with Air North to serve as a ship-through facility making daily trips to Montreal delivering parts and engines from U.S. planes for service or repair at the main overhaul facility for the smaller turbine engines and parts. Eventually, instead of sending the components to Montreal, "where it might take two to three weeks for repairs," says Burdet, "we realized we could do it in a day. So we began doing more component repairs here." Although the truck still makes daily runs to Montreal, the business here has developed. Besides servicing planes that come here, technicians go to locations all over the world, making "house calls" to places as distant as Australia, New Zealand and England to fix engines. "I have three people out right now," says Burdet.

It was in the mid 1980s, when Air North was bought by Brockway Air, that Pratt & Whitney hired the contract staff as full-time employees, renting space in the former Air North building from Brockway and, ultimately, Innotech, the building's most recent owner. Burdet, who was one of those original employees, says many of them are still with the company. As native or long-time Vermonters, they were all delighted by the decision to stay in Burlington.

They weren't the only ones happy about keeping the operation in Vermont. Pilots who bring planes here for service love being able to spend time in such beautiful surroundings. "Many times, customers tell pilots, 'Okay, you have to go to Burlington for five days, so take your family,' " says Burdet with a grin. "We have wives of pilots who ask when is the next time the engine needs work so they can plan to come here." The comfortable waiting room of the new offices, decorated in shades of eggplant, teal and dark green with cherry Queen Anne- style furniture, boasts beautifully framed photographs of Vermont scenes, including a snow- and ice-surrounded Burlington Community Boathouse. There's a generous supply of tourist information, and quite often, the staff will create touring agendas for visitors. "We'll say, 'Today, you're headed to Stowe, tomorrow, it's Lake Placid,' " Burdet says. "That's the beauty of Burlington."

Burdet says the employees here are a close group. "We all help each other and all try to learn, within reason, each other's jobs so we can help out." He adds that more than half of the employees can fix engines, and all have learned to pick out parts and package engines for shipping if someone else is busy. The staff at the Burlington location has grown from 15 when they started to 25 and is still growing.

Just about everything at Burlington International is growing. Corley says that enplanements are up about 5 percent over last year, which means there are about 475,000 people boarding planes each year. "We're really a very small airport," he says, "but we have an incredible service for an airport this size." It's attributable, says Corley, to a mixture of things. Although Burlington isn't a hub, it's at the outer end of a spoke, and the airport has made arrangements to park about 11 aircraft overnight here, so they're the last ones in and the first ones out. "From an airline's perspective, this is probably the most economical one to operate out of in the whole Northeast, because we've kept our landing fees substantially less than anybody else's. I think that translates into better service and lower ticket fees."

Speaking of lower ticket fees, Corley doesn't think Burlington will be able to attract Southwest Airlines, which has recently publicized significantly lower fares out of Manchester, N.H. "We're just not big enough," Corley says. "The demographics aren't here to get them to come. But check the price of tickets here," he advises. "If you give adequate lead time, they will always be within $30 to $50 of Southwest."