ExcelAire at 30: It’s been quite a ride

By GREGORY ZELLER // Overhauled business models, an industry-reshaping terror attack, a corporate takeover, shifting international regulations, ever-evolving technologies … nobody said 30 years would be easy.

But they have been successful for Long Island MacArthur Airport-based charter-flight manager ExcelAire, which started life as Eastway Aircraft Services back in 1985.

Eastway didn’t become ExcelAire until 1997, switching first to ExcelAire Service Inc. and later to ExcelAire LLC. Until then, the fixed-based operator focused on the maintenance and repair of piston and turboprop aircraft, but it switched its focus and name after upping its engineering game to jets and receiving FAA approval to maintain charter aircraft, noted Greg Brinkman, the firm’s president.

Brinkman described the expansion to jets and charters as a natural evolution, “part and parcel of the business and something ExcelAire was always married to.” But there’s no denying the new certification was a major business booster, one of several significant changes ExcelAire has endured over the last 30 years.

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ExcelAire President Greg Brinkman

Brinkman understands aviation-industry evolution well. Prior to joining ExcelAire, he piloted Poughkeepsie-based Associated Aircraft Group, which he launched in 1989 and grew into the East Coast’s largest operator of commercial Sikorsky S-76 helicopters.

He sold Associated to United Technologies in 1999 and joined ExcelAire a year later as a partner and chief operating officer and was promoted to president three months ago.

A major course correction along the way: ExcelAire’s 2012 acquisition by South Carolina-based Hawthorne Global Aviation, which operates at Georgia’s Cobb County Airport, Chicago Executive Airport, Wisconsin’s Chippewa Valley Regional Airport and now LIMA.

Not only was there a year-long process of due diligence, reviews and other tedious M&A protocols to endure, but after the deal was struck, it was back to school for ExcelAire’s staff. Hawthorne Global kept the ExcelAire tag – and market cred – but introduced a host of back-office changes that were “certainly challenging” for the new subsidiary’s veteran staffers, Brinkman noted.

“We had 75 employees at the time, and they were used to doing everything a certain way, a system that evolved slowly over 26 years,” Brinkman said. “Then a new parent comes in and they have a different way of doing things.

“They had certain systems they wanted us to use, as far as accounting procedures and other software,” he added. “In hindsight, they were good changes that brought us into modern-day technologies.”

For everything that changed, the things that stayed the same are what helped ExcelAire weather the transition.

“The FAA and DOT regulations didn’t change,” Brinkman noted. “Our licenses and certifications stayed the same. Our business model – an aviation-services provider with worldwide authority – stayed the same.”

That steady hand had helped the company persist through an earlier challenge, this one occurring early in Brinkman’s term as COO: The Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and brief shut-down of the air-travel industry.

Four days after the FAA grounded all national air traffic, ExcelAire became one of the first commercial entities to return to the air, chartering a flight to Europe to bring home an executive with World Trade Center ties. Being among the first companies given permission to fly in the wake of the attacks was “interesting,” Brinkman noted, and a definite nod to ExcelAire’s strong federal credentials.

Now focused on charters, management, sales and maintenance of more than 20 private planes – including jets and turboprops – ExcelAire occupies more than 200,000 square feet of office and hangar space at LIMA, where it manages 15 planes. It also has bases at New Jersey’s Teterboro Airport and Port Columbus International Airport in Ohio, and it’s in “steady growth mode,” according to Brinkman.

The company is building two new LIMA hangars over the next three years – “We need the space,” Brinkman said – and is looking to add as many planes as it can to its management roster.

“We’re constantly looking for new aircraft,” Brinkman added. “We have several proposals out. We hope to add two more before year’s end, and the goal is at least five more in 2016.”

Technology will be the key to the next 30 years, he said, with the ability to “fly faster and further,” bringing “a whole new dimension to how we view aviation today.” But for now, Hawthorne Global’s New York subsidiary will continue to do what it has always done, according to Brinkman: Provide convenient and safe charter-flight management for bankers, developers and other high-end corporate clients.

And while Friday’s scheduled anniversary party inside its LIMA hangar is more of an open-house than a networking event, “our name and our logo will be there,” Brinkman noted, “and we’re always happy to sign up new customers who stop by.”

“I anticipate years of continued growth,” he said. “ExcelAire and Hawthorne want to be major players in this space in the United States.”