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Gulf Aviation: Daughter Finds Calling in Family Business, Thrives Despite Pandemic Struggles

Arlene Garza remembers the exact moment she realized she wanted to stay in the family business. Now, as the president and owner of Phillips 66® Aviation-branded Gulf Aviation, a leading South Texas fixed-base operator (FBO) located at Valley International Airport (KHRL) in Harlingen, Texas, she retells that moment from her youth with a catch in her voice.

She recalls being a young customer service representative, working under her father David Garza, back when Gulf Aviation was handling passenger check-in and boarding operations for flights. She greeted a young girl whose oxygen tank had been mistakenly put on another flight. Without it, the girl’s portable tank wouldn’t make it through the night. Arlene reacted the only way she knew how. Once the oxygen finally arrived on another flight later that evening, she jumped into her car and drove an hour-and-a-half to the town of Palmview, where the family was staying, to bring the oxygen tank to the girl.

It was then she realized how much of an impact she and her team members could make on people’s lives by simply going above and beyond the call of duty.

From that day forward, the family business was Arlene’s calling. Eventually she would take over the full-service FBO in 2014 when her father retired—after he invested a lifetime of building up the business with his wife, Elena. And, as the company celebrates its 41st anniversary this year, the team’s mantra remains the same since her father first launched the business as a one-man shop originally called Garza Aircraft Service in 1979: always go the extra mile. Arlene credits that mantra, which her 15 employees have readily adopted, for helping Gulf Aviation weather the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It is a victory for us,” she said, referring to making it out of COVID-19 with the business intact. “I know there were a lot of businesses that have been hurt, particularly FBOs in our industry, and I believe we are one of the lucky ones to have made it out. We are starting to see a light at the end of the tunnel, thanks to our wonderful team of employees and the customer service they provide.”

The struggles they endured over the past year, Arlene says, have helped the team focus on the day at hand and the challenges in front of them. That strategy continues to aid the company’s success on the heels of the pandemic.

In fact, the Corporate Aircraft Association (CAA)-certified FBO recently acquired its third hangar, it’s now hiring, and has plans to add a new fuel truck and potentially open a flight school as KHRL continues to grow. The likelihood of KHRL’s growth looks promising, according to the airport’s aviation director, Marv Esterly.

“Recently we’ve seen a huge surge in traffic,” Esterly said of KHRL, which is the largest airport in the Rio Grande Valley region. “And, the next few months are going to be great.”

According to Esterly, the airport’s traffic doubled from February to March and it continues to climb for a variety of reasons, including the fact that now, thanks to recent airport improvements, KHRL has the longest runway in South Texas at 9,400 feet. Having a long runway like this enables the airport to accommodate large cargo traffic for FedEx and DHL, both of which fly out of the airport on Boeing 767s daily.

KHRL also serves American Airlines, Delta Airlines, United Airlines, Frontier Airlines, SkyWest Airlines and Viva Aerobus, which recently added a direct, international flight to Monterey, Mexico. Meanwhile, American Airlines has added four daily flights to Dallas-Fort Worth and a nonstop flight to Chicago.

When asked what the key to their success was, Esterly credited the airport’s “No Tenant Left Behind” philosophy. And that’s not just talk. For the past year-and-a-half, KHRL has been offering its tenants, including Gulf Aviation, free rent, in an effort to curb the effects of the pandemic.

“We definitely believe in partnering with our tenants, because we’re all in this together,” he said. “As a self-sustaining airport with no debt, we had the opportunity to help, and we wanted to make sure we passed that along to our tenants.”

Today, Gulf Aviation continues to provide the best in aviation support throughout South Texas, with multiple services for aviation and ground support maintenance and management to the commercial, business and leisure aviation community flying into KHRL. Gulf Aviation currently has the largest fuel storage capacity on the airfield and has been a proud Phillips 66 Aviation fuel provider since 2009.

“Phillips 66 does an awesome job,” Arlene said. “From the beginning, they were very welcoming and always made sure we were taken care of. They treat us like family.”

Arlene also credits her family at home saying, “I would like to give a special thanks to my parents and husband of 18 years, Hector Garza, for their ongoing support. Hector’s hard work and dedication has contributed to the ongoing successes of the company over the last 20 years.” Hector also works at the FBO, and they have three children, David (17), Allison (16) and Emily (14).    

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