Stepping inside of the Fargo Jet Center will make you want to fly exclusively via private aircraft. A luxurious passenger facility with floor to ceiling wrap-around windows, a fireplace and cozy leather chairs welcomes travelers as they wait, with a freshly baked muffin, for their plane to be refueled. One look into the elegant washrooms will leave you wishing that you never had to connect in Denver again. However, the Fargo Jet Center is more than what they call a fixed-based operator (FBO) in aviation jargon, it also imports and exports airplanes, maintains and upgrades aircraft, has a Charter division to take you wherever you want to go and a flight school to get you flying yourself.
The Fargo Jet Center has been in operation since 1995 when brothers Patrick and Jim Sweeney needed a base of operation for their other company, Weather Modification International (WMI). WMI’s airplanes are specially modified for cloud seeding and atmospheric research missions and are flown all over the world. The Sweeney brothers’ operation was outgrowing the small hangar rented on the south side of Fargo’s airport and it needed room for expansion. They worked with the Municipal Airport Authority to build a new base to house and maintain Weather Modification’s airplanes. Soon they began offering to the public the services they were already doing internally to support their own fleet. Thus began the Fargo Jet Center as an FBO.
Darren Hall, Fargo Jet Center’s vice president of marketing, explained the history of so called fixed-based operations. FBO is a term born after WWI that indicates an operation with fuel, ground transportation and airplane storage services. After the war, there was a time when aviation went unregulated and pilots made their money by flying inexpensive military surplus aircraft from town to town offering airplane rides, lessons and aerobatic shows. There were not many general aviation airports at the time, so a pilot would just land his aircraft in a field outside of town and the owner of the nearest gas station would typically drive out and meet the pilot to bring him back into town or sell him fuel. After aviation regulations developed in 1926, pilots were forced to formalize their operations. The pilots who set up a permanent business were called “fixed-base operators” and their businesses evolved into the flight line services and hospitality operations they are today.
In the early years, Fargo Jet Center focused on building up their FBO business by promoting themselves as an easy stop for fuel or a customs clearance for international flights. They quickly out grew their first hangar and offices and expanded in 1998 to accommodate the growth in both Fargo Jet Center and WMI businesses. The growth of the FBO has continued to this day involving the purchase of a competitor in 2001 and the expansion of another large storage hangar in 2015.
The Fargo Jet Center has worked to provide a smooth and unique experience for travelers flying via private airplane into and through Fargo. In addition to 24-hour fuel, hangar and repair services, the airport also offers U.S. customs clearance at any time of day or night. Their hard work has paid off as they were most recently ranked by pilots as the third best aviation services company in the world in a 2017 Aviation International News FBO survey.
“We’ve really been focused on taking care of the people coming into Fargo, whether they are here for just a few minutes on a cross country flight or coming to Fargo for business or pleasure,” said Hall. “For some, it’s the first time coming to Fargo, so we try to give them the best possible experience and introduction to our community.”
Hall has been with Fargo Jet Center in managerial roles since they opened and has witnessed the company make a name for itself and thrive in the community. He and his team have carefully analyzed corporate aircraft traffic in the upper Midwest and have attracted both transcontinental and international traffic looking for an easy stop to refuel. For the past fifteen years, they have exhibited at numerous industry events and trade shows, both domestic and international. In addition to promoting FBO services, Fargo Jet Center uses these events to acquire aircraft to recondition and sell. This buying and selling of airplanes has turned into a profitable division of the company.
Fargo Jet Center has always bought and sold aircraft but ten years ago they dedicated a sales team that is now based at the company’s sister FBO in Eden Prairie, MN, Premier Jet Center. The team monitors specific markets for pre-owned airplanes and will travel internationally to inspect and purchase an airplane when it becomes available. After purchase, the airplane is flown back to Fargo or Eden Prairie where maintenance and updates are performed such as new avionics, paint restoration and striping and new interiors make the plane look brand new again. They often take custom orders and prepares the selected airplane to the customer’s specifications.
The company has further diversified with an on-site flight school where students can obtain their Private Pilot’s Certificate at the area’s only Cessna Pilot Center. Students choose courses based on becoming a sport pilot or private pilot and can continue on to advanced level training to obtain numerous add-on ratings including instrument, multi-engine, commercial pilot, flight instructor, and airline transport pilot.
The flight school has become especially important as the aviation industry anticipates a huge pilot shortage in the near future as more people are choosing to fly to their destinations, but less people are studying to become pilots. Boeing Aircraft recently projected a need for 617,000 additional commercial pilots over the next 20 years. A similar shortage of aviation technicians was projected and neither take into account the needs of the general aviation industry.
Fargo Jet Center is getting youth interested in aviation by helping to launch and support aviation technology classes at Sheyenne High School in West Fargo and working towards other post high school educational opportunities in the community.
Hall says that receiving a pilot’s license often leads into other career opportunities in aviation. For example, all of Fargo Jet Center’s aircraft salesmen are pilots, too. Hall cites himself as an example as well, saying that although he has his private pilot’s license, he found himself drawn to flight line services and marketing management where he can take care of customers and team members, and yet still be around airplanes. Like Hall’s father, who as an airport ramp agent in Minot let an adolescent Hall sit in the cockpit and turn things on and off, Hall hopes to inspire the next generation of aviators by speaking at local schools and urging them to consider the numerous career paths within aerospace.
After all, if Fargo Jet Center’s current rate of success continues, they’re going to need a bigger team.
Click here for more information on the Fargo Jet Center.