FBO with humble beginnings makes a name for itself in a big way

Located about 35 miles northwest of Atlanta at the Cartersville-Bartow County Airport (KVPC) is Phoenix Air Group, Inc. – more commonly called Phoenix Air – a Phillips 66®-branded dealer that has gained a lot of unsolicited publicity in the past few months. Senior Vice President and COO Dent Thompson likes to refer to Phoenix Air as "the largest company you've never heard of." However, new articles and high-profile visits by Georgia's Lt. Governor Casey Cagle and others, are trying to prove him wrong.

Phoenix Air has dominated local and national headlines over the past few months as the primary air transport for many U.S. government and foreign governments employees who are potentially exposed to or carrying contagious diseases. In fact, Phoenix Air transported the two Americans infected with the Ebola virus from Liberia, Western Africa directly to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. Phoenix Air has a top of the line medical crew on standby 24/7 to transport patients to the U.S. or Europe in a moment's notice, and the Fixed Base Operator (FBO) is currently one of the four largest international air ambulance companies in the world. For the past 15 years, Phoenix Air has provided robust, in-house medical specialists and customized aircraft to move patients all around the world for ambulance transports.

Phoenix Air recently purchased a highly modified special missions Gulfstream III from the Saudi Arabia military and turned it into one of the finest air ambulance jets in the world. A half-million dollar interior upgrade was just completed, and it's slated to be on the flight line the first week of October. Today Phoenix Air owns and operates the only three cargo-door commercial Gulfstream jets in the world, enabling Phoenix Air to move patients in an airborne intensive care unit from the ground ambulance into the aircraft, minimizing disturbance to the patient instead of trying to enter through a narrower, normal passenger door.

Dent's brother, Mark Thompson, founded Phoenix Air in the late 1970s and is its president. He enlisted during the Vietnam War and became a warrant officer, piloting helicopters. After returning to civilian life, he founded Phoenix Air, and in 1984 Dent left his job as a Walt Disney World writer to join the ranks.

Fairly early in the company's growth, during the 80s – 90s, Mark and Dent began looking for niche opportunities that had a high degree of complex licensing requirements. Their reasoning was two fold:

  1. This would reduce competition, and
  2. Offering specialized services would help to recession-proof the company during an uncertain economic climate.

That philosophy has worked extremely well, and now Phoenix Air holds some 15 contracts with U.S. and foreign governments, including the U.S. Department of Defense, State Department, Interior Department, Department of Energy, NASA and Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). In turn, Phoenix Air has hired some of the sharpest minds in the country to complete the complex military, scientific and health-related work they are involved in.

Additionally, Phoenix Air has developed strong in-house fabrication capabilities and can modify aircraft with very specific requirements. Its maintenance shop is what the military calls depot level, meaning high-level maintenance performed on equipment requiring a major overhaul or substantial or complete rebuilding. The shop services its military modification requirements as well as its 37 owned business-sized aircrafts, which include Learjets, Gulfstreams and Embraer 120s.

The amount of success and growth experienced by Phoenix Air is no small feat, and Dent still vividly remembers the initial struggle to obtain a fuel contract when they bought the FBO at the Cartersville-Bartow County Airport. With no credit history and less than 10 employees, Mark and Dent reached out unsuccessfully to a number of national aviation fuel companies that had zero interest in the small start-up. That all changed when a Phillips 66 representative agreed to sit down with them.

"He was the manager of aviation sales for the eastern district, and he took a chance on us," said Dent. "He listened to our philosophy and business plan, he said 'OK, here's the deal. If your father (a well-known Atlanta architect) will co-sign a contract, we'll sell Phoenix Air one tanker truck at a time of fuel.'"

"We received our first load of Phillips 66 fuel, put up our Phillips signage and have never looked back. We're real big on loyalty. Never to this day have we forgotten that Phillips 66 stuck its neck out and gave us our first load of jet fuel," said Dent.

Since then, Phoenix Air has been approached by other aviation fuel companies trying to persuade Phoenix Air managers to make a change, but according to Dent, they won't even consider another company. "We've never had the slightest problem getting our fuel, even during embargo times. Today we continue to be a proud Phillips 66-branded FBO."

"It's all about taking a risk in business. Phillips 66 took a risk with us and [I believe] it's paid off pretty well," said Dent.

The name, Phoenix Air, has created some confusion, with people assuming the FBO is located in Arizona. In actuality, the name is based on Atlanta from the Ashes, more commonly known as The Phoenix, symbolizing Atlanta's triumphant rise from the ashes following the Civil War to become one of the top U.S. cities today.

With the Ebola patient transports making national news for weeks on end, Dent related … "Recently our information technology department manager received a call from our Internet provider who assumed something was very wrong with our service due to a drastic upsurge in visitors to our website," said Dent. They thought it was a denial of service attempt. As it turns out, the numbers were legitimate, with more than two million hits a day from people learning about Phoenix Air for the first time through the news reports – quite a change from a company that originally was founded in a residential basement. It's an easy assumption to make that people are no longer confused and will know the Phoenix Air name now, and in the future.