In a way, it's the lifestyles of the rich and famous that have led to the continued success of Associated Aircraft Group (AAG). With seven helicopters at the Dutchess County Airport, the company, a subsidiary of the Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation, offers charter services, a fractional ownership program, and outright sales for the person who has everything but extra time.
"Out of here, about 70 percent of our flights originate or end at a New York City airport," explains Carolyn Marino, marketing manager for the company. "They leave this hangar in the morning, do their trips in and around the city, and come back in the evening." While during the summer season, roughly from Memorial Day through Labor Day, those destinations might include summer homes in the Hamptons or Nantucket, the helicopters are also used throughout the year to go to and from Washington, DC, Boston, Philadelphia, and Connecticut.
"It can be executives going from one meeting to another," Marino adds. "It's a time-saving tool, and they can conduct meetings on board, as well."
The helicopters can also be used to get to and from flights from major airports; it takes them only ten minutes to get to JFK from midtown.
John Agor and Raymond Altieri started AAG in the late 1980s as a charter helicopter service run out of Danbury, Connecticut, where the company's headquarters remain. In 1998, Sikorsky Aircraft, whose namesake Igor Sikorsky invented the modern helicopter, was looking to enter the fractional ownership business and so purchased AAG, keeping Agor and Altieri on board. In the past five years, that aspect of the company has overtaken the charter business, in part because of its guaranteed availability.
"The difference between charter and fractional is that with fractional, you actually own an interest in a helicopter. The helicopter is yours; it's available to you at all times. It's similar to a time-share unit," Marino points out. "When time means money, the last thing these CEOs want to hear is 'no, we can't pick you up.'"
The fractional program operates at two levels. The first, the C+ model Program, features the Sikorsky S-76 helicopter, "like the Jaguar of cars," Marino adds, and uses a certain number of flight units based on travel zones emanating from New York City. The second program, the B model, utilizes a vehicle with an older hull and components– - "a used car with a certified warranty" is how Marino puts it - along with an hourly usage system.
Under both programs, AAG takes on maintenance, fueling, dispatching, catering, and ground transportation as well as the actual flying of the aircraft, which seats either six or seven. Of the company's more than 50 employees, 20 are full-time pilots, many of whom came to the business through the military.
In addition to the charter business and fractional shares program, AAG also serves as an FAA-certified repair station with a full-time maintenance staff, and also runs a management program for clients who own a helicopter but who don't want to take on the added burden of finding pilots, performing their own maintenance, or covering insurance. The company has also just finished renovating another hangar next door (with a grand opening planned for early June) to provide additional helicopter space as needed.
Marino says many of the company's clients find AAG through the Internet, particularly if they are familiar with helicopters. "There's a link to us through the Sikorsky website," she adds. "They are the name in helicopters. There are 40 countries with our helicopters, and all of the armed forces in the United States use them." Many others come through referrals, in part because of the company's discretion.
"We have the highest level of confidentiality," Marino emphasizes. "Our clients are celebrities, corporate heads, the elite of the elite. We fly high dignitaries, government leaders. You name it, we fly it."
With charter rates starting at $4,000 an hour and fractional shares beginning in the area of $200,000, and with monthly management of $6,000 and additional costs per flight, elite is right. And with its choice levels of service, AAG aims to please them all. "There's always going to be a client who wants to make a charter trip on occasion," says Marino. "For those who fly more often, but not often enough, there's fractional. And, for someone who flies a lot, our hope is to sell them their own." Which, at $8 million, isn't a shabby dream.
One of AAG's newest pushes is to try to expand the level of services used at the Dutchess County Airport. With the opening this month of its second hangar, adding 15,000 square feet of new aircraft maintenance and storage space, the company is hoping to build on fixed-base operations (FBOs). "We're trying to get people to fly into Dutchess County," explains Carolyn Marino.
By providing conference areas, computer hook-ups, and pilot facilities, Marino says AAG is trying to provide corporations with an alternative to Teterboro Airport in New Jersey, which many use as a hub into Manhattan. In addition to 5,000 feet of runways, Marino adds, Dutchess County Airport also has a 45,000-gallon fuel farm and 24-hour line service, so a corporate jet can be landed at any time. The company's dispatch center and computerized weather center also provides pilots with the support they need, she says.
"Most people see Teterboro as just outside of New York City," she adds. But with all of the time it takes to debark in Teterboro because of congestion, that seven-minute helicopter flight into midtown can end up taking longer than the 20 minutes spent getting from Dutchess Airport. "They could already be in New York City if they had landed here," notes Marino.