Airport lands travel service

Corporate Eagle, which sells high-end jet time to companies, settles at St. Pete-Clearwater.

By STEVE HUETTEL, Times Staff Writer
Published January 4, 2008

A private air travel service catering to corporate executives and wealthy individuals will set up shop at St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport later this year.

Corporate Eagle Cos., based in suburban Detroit, will build a $5-million-plus terminal with adjacent hangars to handle clients who own shares of aircraft in its fleet of 11 jets and turboprops. The company has 31 "members," mostly southeast Michigan corporations that fly executives around the country in the comfort and convenience of private aircraft.

"Many have a need to fly to Florida on business and a lot have second homes there," said chief executive Rick Nini. "We need a presence in Florida to service our clients."

Corporate Eagle will start marketing to Tampa Bay area companies this spring and base a plane here for clients who commit to buy an aircraft share when the terminal opens in the fall, he said.

The hassles of dealing with airport security and airline delays helped boost the popularity of business jets among busy executives. Buying a share, called fractional ownership, gives businesses flight time at a lower cost than owning a corporate jet. Corporate Eagle pitches personal, club-style service on its Web site.

At the "gated and exclusive" local terminal, members returning home can pick up their cars detailed and full of gas. One hangar is reserved for preparing aircraft to each client's specifications, from favorite snacks and beverages to slippers and the corporate logo displayed on the side.

Airport officials advertised for bids on the 5.6-acre site. Proposals for a shopping center and an office building at the airport were rejected, said property manager Bob Humberstone. Corporate Eagle outbid Starfighters, a local flight show demonstration team, and will pay $85,000 annually.

The company will start with about 10 employees, including mechanics performing maintenance in a second hangar. It will be dwarfed by Avantair, another fractional-ownership company with a maintenance base and headquarters at the airport. Avantair flies 39 planes and had more than 150 local employees last year.

Steve Huettel can be reached at huettel@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3384.

What is fractional jet ownership?

As a cost-saving move over owning a corporate jet, businesses and individuals buy shares in a plane from a company like Corporate Eagle. That gives them a number of flight hours per year, like a vacation time-share owner gets a number of weeks in a condo.

Usually, fractional owners fly any comparable jet available, not the specific one they own. A management company provides the flight crew and repositions the jet as needed. Owners pay an annual management fee and the cost of fuel used.