Spokane Journal of Business

Aircraft Solutions to expand at SIA

Planned charter service, Northwest Flight School part of growth at SIA

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Aircraft Solutions LLC, an aircraft maintenance and avionics service company at Spokane International Airport, plans to add another division called Northwest Charter Group by January to offer a passenger charter service at Spokane International Airport.

The planned expansion comes on the heels of the company's opening of Northwest Flight School for private pilot training early this year. Since January, Aircraft Solutions' general manager Charlie Archer says, the company steadily has been hiring instructors and adding aircraft.

He says the charter expansion will require the business to invest in additional planes and hire between three and six pilots.

Aircraft Solutions, which launched Jan. 1, 2012, opened its flight school division a year later and now the two operations employ 24 people combined in a leased 18,000-square-foot facility located at 8125 W. Pilot Drive, east of the airport's main terminal. Its space includes offices, a classroom, a maintenance area, and an aircraft apron area.

"There has been at least a 12 percent (revenue) growth in the maintenance arm of the operations, without the flight school, so we know there's growth," Archer says. He doesn't have comparable year-over-year total revenue data because the flight school has operated for only six months.

However, Archer says if growth continues on its current trajectory, the business would need to consider by this fall whether to build another separate office space and hangar near its current facility.

"When we get going with these other projects, we're going to have to expand," he says. "The airport is asking."

Aircraft Solutions is owned by Bill Ifft, who also is president and owner of Cheney-based Free Press Publishing. At the beginning of last year, Ifft purchased the maintenance arm assets of XN Air LLC at the airport and opened Aircraft Solutions, Archer says.

Ifft saw a need to offer a flight school after Spokane Airways ceased operations and closed its pilot training division in December, says Tabitha Rahder, a Northwest Flight School pilot instructor who has developed its flight training program.

Northwest Flight School operates with five aircraft added since January that include four Cessna 172s and one Cirrus SR-22, and it has one other Cirrus SR-22 it's purchased and that's awaiting delivery from the factory to join the lineup by November, Archer says.

For the charter service, it likely will need to add another Cirrus SR-22, and it may try to secure a twin-turboprop Beechcraft King Air 200, he says. The average price for a used Cessna 172 is $65,000, and a Cirrus SR-22 costs about $300,000, Archer says.

Of the 24 total employees at the Aircraft Solutions site, 13 work in its maintenance and avionics operation, and 11 are part of the Northwest Flight School, which includes nine mostly full-time pilot instructors, Rahder says.

Early this year, the company hired four flight instructor pilots previously employed at Spokane Airways, a decades-old business that closed its flight school and small charter service after its owner retired.

Archer, who previously was a Spokane Airways manager until 2007 and then worked at XN Air as director of operations, joined Aircraft Solutions when it opened and now manages both that business and the Northwest Flight School.

Also in early 2012, Ross Spokane LLC, a company started by Denver-based Ross Aviation LLC, had acquired other divisions of XN Air, which operates as the airport's fixed based operator and provides aircraft fueling, cargo-handling, and commercial aircraft services.

Archer says the Aircraft Solutions also offers an aircraft rental service for current licensed pilots who don't own a plane, at a cost of $135 an hour.

Since the Northwest Flight School started, Rahder says it has grown from less than a dozen students to more than 75 people who are currently taking flight instruction. The school charges $135 per flight hour for aircraft used in basic flight training, and an additional $45 per hour for instructor time.

"Seventy percent of our clientele are trying to become professional pilots," she says. "They can get ratings here that can articulate into degree requirements for a bachelor's degree."

Rahder has worked to develop Northwest Flight School's standardized pilot training program. She says the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University extended campus at Fairchild is working with Northwest Flight School to offer flight training based at SIA for some of its students, who are now completing academic requirements of a bachelor's degree in professional aeronautics at Fairchild.

Some of those students are among the 75 students taking flight instruction at Northwest Flight School, she says.

She says Fairchild education managers have approached the business about eventually offering some flight instruction based out of Fairchild along with operating an office there.

Rahder says the flight school is finishing up a high-level pilot training program certification process that requires extensive documentation, additional instructor knowledge, and periodic audits for what's called Part 141 status.

The standardized instruction also eventually could work into requirements of a future degree program at Eastern Washington University, she says, for students seeking a bachelor's degree in professional aeronautics.

Treva Lind
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