Fixed-Based Operators Are an Economic Driver in the Panhandle
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Not just a gas station Fixed-base operators are a vital service sector within the general aviation industry.
Domenick Eanniello, general manager of Million Air Tallahassee, wears his Florida State University colors as he chats in his office overlooking the general aviation portion of Tallahassee International Airport. There are two Army Blackhawks and an olive-drab Russian Mi-Series helicopter sitting out on the tarmac. Civilian aircraft are parked nearby. Meanwhile, a Navy-gray P-3 Orion, a four-engine turboprop plane used for maritime patrol, orbits the field. A few days earlier, vintage World War II aircraft from the Collings Foundation used this fixed-base operator, or FBO, as a stopover en route to a show in Central Florida.
The mingling of military and civilian aircraft is a common sight at Million Air. The former are there to train pilots, while the latter are there not only to train general aviation pilots but to drop off football teams, businessmen and future presidents-elect.
Eanniello, who is in his sixth year as general manager of the FBO, wears garnet and gold to greet the Boston College football team. Representing Tallahassee, and promoting it, are every bit a part of his job, as is providing coffee and conference rooms. That’s because Million Air is more than a gas station for airplanes. It’s about providing the best customer service to the people who fly in those planes. And it’s about being the first face a potential new business sees when it comes to town.
“Our product is not fuel,” Eanniello said. “Yeah, it’s about 75 percent of what we do, but it’s not fuel. Our product here, in the FBO business — and you’ll find this nationwide; everybody has copied the model in the last 15 to 20 years — is customer service.”
According to the company website, Million Air was founded in 1984 by the Mary Kay Cosmetics family as a single-site business located in Dallas. The company’s original goal was to deliver high-end service to Mary Kay customers and sales representatives at the company’s hometown airport. Soon, though, the company realized that high rollers stepping off of million-dollar private jets were accustomed to luxury-level service, and a new business model was born.
Today, Million Air has bases worldwide. The company came to Tallahassee around 2009 when it bought the FBO side of Flightline, which continues to have a vital presence as a Piper aircraft dealer and maintenance provider. While both businesses rely on providing excellent customer service, Million Air caters more to the human element of general aviation, Eanniello said.
“Whatever a guy requires, whether it be fuel, oil, for us to get him a hotel room, for us to get him a rental car, for us to take care of his catering, for us to recommend where to go in town to eat, whatever the customer requires, we do as a customer service business,” he said. “A subset of that is fuel, but we see ourselves as more of a concierge business that caters to aviation. And that’s the big change in this business over the last 20 years, I’ll say.”
Making an overall customer impression is the only way to survive in this business today, Eanniello said. Like all top FBOs in the Panhandle, Million Air prides itself on providing luxury-level amenities.
“That’s how we stay competitive in this industry, and my company has, five years in a row, been voted the best FBO in the country because of that overall customer service focus. We’ll do anything,” he said. “We modeled ourselves on the Ritz Carlton, and Disney and Southwest. People that bring in business jets, they wake up in a large house, somebody drives them to the airplane, they get on their $30 million airplane, they come here to see the governor to lobby about something, so they’re used to a very high-end experience. We try to make the transition from the airplane to the business and from their business in town back to the airplane, like the rest of their life, if you will.”