In Flight: Meacham to see $17.5M in renovation, expansion

Scott Nishimura

The bulbous, blue-and-white Boeing 747 – one of the Air Force planes used to fly the president – that flew into Fort Worth’s Meacham International Airport recently for a paint job is just one sign of the business bump the city’s nearly 100-year-old airport is seeing these days. The Fort Worth City Council in March approved the $17.5 million renovation and expansion of the airport’s main administration building to make it more attractive to prospective tenants.

Two of the airport’s four fixed-base operators are spending millions to add space, and a third FBO has taken over the old Sandpiper Inn at the airport and is renovating it. Fixed-base operators pump fuel and rent hangar space to planes based at the airport and to “transient” aircraft that fly in on business trips.

The city is about to start construction on a hangar to house police helicopters and an airplane the Fort Worth Police Department wants to purchase.

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And land at the airport for further expansion is so scarce that the city is planning to seek proposals to see if anyone’s interested in developing a 250,000-square-foot site that will require significant fill and grading.

“This is not normal for any general aviation airport anywhere in the U.S.,” said Bill Welstead, the city’s aviation director, who in February collected a National Air Transportation Association award that recognizes airport managers for fostering relationships with airport businesses.

Among the achievements the association cited: Welstead’s completion of a “stalled” $9 million runway project.

Takeoffs and landings at Meacham, which caters to a mix of corporate and general aviation users, grew to 88,000 in 2013 from 75,000 in 2011. The city estimates that the airport has $165 million in economic impact annually.

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“You’re starting to see an uptick” with the recession over, Welstead said recently as he drove visitors across the 850-acre airport in his unmarked white Ford crew cab pickup. “Businesses are starting to expand.”

The presence of one of the Air Force One versions – the plane was parked that day outside Boeing paint contractor Leading Edge Aviation’s hangar just a few hundred yards from single-engine aircraft – is one visible indication of the contrasts and burgeoning activity at Meacham.

Much of the expansion is from the fixed-base operators, which try to one-up each other with everything from rent car services and covered parking to catering and conference rooms for aircraft owners and passengers, along with lounges, sleeping quarters and cars for pilots cooling their heels while clients are in town for meetings.

Texas Jet, the airport’s largest fixed-base operator, is getting ready to raze an old hangar and replace it with a bigger one and a 30-car parking structure for one of its tenants, the Executive Air Share fractional jet ownership company. Texas Jet is also planning to replace the concrete apron outside the FBO this spring.

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American Aero, an FBO owned by the Fort Worth financier Robert Bass, has work underway at its main hangar, has started construction on the first of three new ones, and recently won the contract to build a 7,000-square-foot FBO in the airport’s administration building. The company’s FBO today is housed in temporary quarters.

Another newcomer, Cornerstone Aviation, has purchased the old Sandpiper Inn-based FBO and is renovating it, with hardwoods, pilot lounge and a glass-walled lounge facing the tarmac.

“It’s competitive,” said Reed Pigman Jr., who founded Texas Jet in 1978 and has 22 hangars and 300,000 square feet of space in them. “But we thrive on competition.”

The city estimates that Texas Jet has 81 percent of the market share among Meacham’s FBOs, and Pigman estimates that he sells two thirds of the fuel dispensed at the airport, pumping it into about 10,000 jets annually.

Pigman’s FBO building has a main lounge with food and beverage, conference rooms, flight planning facilities and a service desk.

Pilots waiting on their passengers can take one of Texas Jet’s 10 “crew cars” into town, or chill in a darkened TV lounge, darkened “Oasis” room with leather chairs and lighted fish tanks, or softly lit “quiet” quarters with beds and computer connections.

The service offerings are mostly aimed at aircraft owners, but Pigman keeps a keen eye on satisfying pilots. Ones who fly “transient” aircraft – planes not based at Meacham – have wide latitude in choosing which FBO to pull up to.

Cornerstone’s predecessor was known for slashing fuel prices – Pigman says by 80 cents a gallon – but Pigman proudly shows off a wall inside his FBO covered with “pilots choice awards.”

“If the boss in the back of the plane isn’t happy, it doesn’t matter if the pilot can say ‘I saved 80 cents’,” Pigman said. The city, noting the sharp level of competition, is now referring to Meacham’s main terminal as the “administration building” to avoid any suggestion that it favors one FBO, Welstead said.

The number of FBOs at Meacham has shrunk by one in recent years, but Pigman says the airport still has one too many, “just based on fuel volumes.” He estimated that three quarters of his revenue comes from fuel sales.

Riggs Brown, general manager for the American Aero FBO, said his firm believes the airport can generate much more economic impact than it does now.

“We see Meacham as an underutilized resource for the Metroplex and certainly for Fort Worth,” he said.

Citing the economic impact numbers estimated by the city and the state, he said, “People would probably be surprised to know that an airport with no commercial traffic and an aging infrastructure is able to generate such numbers. We expect it can generate a lot more.”

American Aero is renovating 75,000 square feet of hangar space, and “expects to add an additional 100,000 square feet” in its other planned hangar projects, Brown said.

Cornerstone’s new owner did not respond to a request for an interview.

Elsewhere at the airport, Meacham’s oldest business, Broadie’s Aviation, has grown aggressively since 2012, when it moved out of its World War II-vintage hangar on the airport’s south side and bought one on the north side more than twice as large at 66,000 square feet.

The maintenance department has 22 mechanics today, up from six, and it’s looking for three to four more, said Allisen Prigel, company principal and granddaughter of the company’s founder.

“If we had three, four more qualified candidates walk in the door today, we could hire them,” she said.

By shifting to a larger, modern hangar with wider doors – 30 feet, compared with 20 – Broadie’s has been able to broaden the kinds of aircraft it serves, moving more deeply into the corporate market, which makes up 50 percent of its business today, said Bruce Laney, the maintenance director.

Broadie’s handles 500-600 work orders annually, Laney estimated, and business has more than doubled since the move, Prigel estimated.

Prigel also added an office in the new hangar for her family’s Blend Supply company – a major distributor of Sherwin-Williams airplane paints and supplies – and started a new aircraft interiors business, Accord Aviation Interiors. Total employment at their Meacham businesses is about 35 today, she said.

Their strength comes from being in the middle of the fast-growing major metro market, close to downtown, and having major sports attractions that bring in out-of-town business, Prigel and Laney said.

Texas Christian University’s entry into the Big 12 conference often draws private aircraft to the airport, typically from visiting teams, they said. And it’s not unusual to see jets bearing Texas Rangers and Dallas Cowboys logos, they said.

Meacham’s tenants these days have been scrounging for more land at the airport.

Pigman, who has built three hangars and bought two more since 2008, said he has an old one he will likely raze and replace soon. Beyond that, he said, he’s hunting for more space at the airport. Prigel says her businesses are now at capacity. She retained the old Broadie’s hangar, which is now on a long-term lease to another tenant.

The airport is losing a Tarrant County College maintenance program to Alliance Airport, but the vacancy is already filled, Welstead said.

“Anytime somebody moves out, the vacancy is immediately filled,” he said.

Airport tenants are quick to heap praise on Welstead, who the city named aviation director in May 2012 following a string of directors.

Tenants say Welstead understands the tenants’ needs and aggressively seeks outside money to complete projects.

“He’s a master at that,” Pigman said.