Maybe five years ago, I got to play golf with Mike Breen....
Super Bowl of the Air
If parking airplanes was a sport, then for about a half a dozen airports in and around Indianapolis, the game began Saturday morning. Local officials are estimating that a record setting 1,000 private aircraft will descend upon area airports, bringing mostly well-heeled fans to the Super Bowl. This presents a challenge for airports whose parking areas are designed to accommodate day-to-day traffic and the occasional rush, not an onslaught of corporate and private aircraft from probably the two of the largest centers of American business and wealth.
A friend and I didn’t have a ticket to the Super Bowl, but we wanted to see the other spectacle that most don’t see; all these jets, turboprops, and a few light piston aircraft all in one place. We left sunny and clear Oshkosh, Wisconsin in a Piper Arrow, a 180 horsepower 4-seat piston powered aircraft and flew south. In winter, with a weather system generating rain in Illinois and Indiana and potential icing conditions north of that along our route, the flight itself was not going to be an easy one.
We jumped across lake Michigan to avoid most of the weather. This was a necessity since our plane has no way of shedding ice in-flight like most of the aircraft we would later see in Indy. In our plane it’s a cat and mouse game of avoiding cloud layers and finding air that is above freezing; no small feat.
Our flight was successful and, despite a soggy, misty arrival, we parked at one of two Fixed Based Operators (FBO) on the field. An FBO is the Federal Aviation Administration’s name for a business that offers commercial services at an airport like fuel, repairs, charter, and concierge-type services for flight crews and their passengers. At Indy we parked at popular nationwide chain, but many airports have locally-owned FBO’s and the six airports in the Indy metro area have a mix of these types of FBO’s. Each one competes to have planes to land at their airport.
Indianapolis International has long, wide runways which will accommodate the largest of the private aircraft expected this weekend, while the other airports have shorter runways, which may limit which airplanes may visit each airfield. Wherever you went, there was not a shortage of planes. From November to April in the Colorado ski areas, you must have an air traffic control slot to fly-in, and it’s the same for many of the other sporting championship events. This year, we did not need a pre-determined air traffic slot to the Super Bowl, but we did need a parking reservation. Each airport FBO has been taking parking reservations for weeks and most were basically at capacity.
Upon arrival, we see that our FBO in Indy has rolled out the red carpet for everyone: flight crews, passengers, and anyone else who steps off an aircraft. There is a cavernous hangar that has been converted into a huge hospitality suite, complete with two 10-foot tall TV screens, featuring numerous leather couches before them with coffee tables, replete with dishes overflowing with candy.
This is your Super Bowl party on steroids. Imagine coolers full of soda, a long table featuring every type of party food, hospitality bars, and appearances by former NFL players. Plus, a chance to sit in a full-size Formula One race car simulator and if you like that, there was a woman roving around offering the chance of purchasing a suite at a new F-1 track opening near Dallas, Texas.
That is what the Super Bowl has also become — not just a game, but the largest corporate networking event in the country.
Our FBO’s party is also sponsored by a major aircraft manufacturer which makes several flavors of business jet and an airliner or two; showing visitors a good time may mean sales later on. In the short term, often the FBO with the best party gets the most aircraft which means lucrative fuel sales and also services such as de-icing, lavatory cleaning, catering, and more.
Full disclosure, I am a professional pilot and have enjoyed a long career flying these limos in the sky. The vast majority of the people I have flown are wonderful and that is a lot of what makes the job fun. But like the athletes we adore but likely will never be; much of what I have seen so far here in Indy is just a whole other world that many of us see and dream about, but then go back to our own lives.
There is one important reason that these aircraft exist. Despite the perceived opulence, I will briefly defend the aircraft as a key tool of business. Visiting two or more investment opportunities or company facilities in one day on the airlines is not cost-effective for many high-level executives. The corporate aircraft can limit the amount of time executives are away from the office traveling. It may only be one reason, but it’s a really important one. It’s the same reason the president also goes by air.
This world is not just the domain of over-hyped celebrities, martini swilling fat-cats, or even old biddies french-kissing their lap dogs as they jet to their multiple homes; its also our domain too. My friend and I flew in the smallest plane and the first piston aircraft the FBO had received that day. We may not have the most money or the shiniest airplane, but we were still welcomed with the same level of service, even though we are going to buy a fraction of the fuel one jet aircraft is likely to buy. The American air traffic control system is set up the same way. The system grants nearly equal access with small accommodations for speed and capabilities. That’s why were were allowed to fly in to one of the busiest sporting events in the world without having to prove money or status.
I had the chance in 2006 to fly passengers to the Final Four championship game in St. Louis. In my next post, I’ll compare that experience to what I see Sunday when it really starts to rain aircraft.