Charter aviation firm succeeds by doing everything ‘perfectly’
As a young man, Edward Kilkeary Sr. gained flight experience the hard way — flying a helicopter gunship supporting infantry during the 1968 Tet offensive during the Vietnam War.
Kilkeary has gone on to build a family-owned aviation business, L.J. Aviation, that flies business customers around the world, manages aircraft for corporations and wealthy individuals, and employs 120. It operates 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, from a base at the Arnold Palmer Regional Airport, a few miles south of Latrobe.
“Since 1980, we have just been a place people can depend on. They call you in the middle of the night and need to go somewhere in an emergency. We’re very, very concerned about doing everything perfectly,” said Kilkeary, 64, whose wife, Mary Ann, and five adult children work in the business.
Doing things perfectly extends to the maintenance and cleaning of multimillion-dollar airplanes in the huge hangars and to their white-painted floors, which are kept spotless.
“Cleanliness is next to godliness,” Kilkeary said.
It also includes flying safely, which Kilkeary said the company has done for 24,000 hours in all kinds of weather for 31 years.
This month, L.J. Aviation was honored with the Governor’s Award for Safety Excellence for implementing a safety management system to reduce risks associated with flying as well as ground operations. The company has had no workplace injuries in the past five years and was the recipient of the Diamond Award, the Federal Aviation Administration’s most prestigious maintenance honor.
The company serves business customers with a fleet of 28 large, medium and light jets, turboprops and helicopters. It has seven hangars to house the airplanes. It owns seven of the aircraft and manages planes owned by others, and it provides hangar space for about a dozen more privately owned planes.
L.J. Aviation provides full-service transportation to business customers — from airplanes to vehicles — to get them to their destinations. For that service they pay from $1,800 to $9,000 an hour, depending on the aircraft used and service required, said Kilkeary, who wouldn’t disclose annual revenue. The company flies about 11,000 hours a year.
In addition to its base at Westmoreland County’s largest airport, L.J. Aviation operates planes and crews at Pittsburgh International Airport, Dulles Airport near Washington and at airports in Richmond, Va.; LaCrosse, Wis.; and other locations Kilkeary would not disclose.
Besides flying customers around the world, his company manages, leases or sells aircraft owned by banks and private individuals, he said.
Kilkeary said 2011 “was a good year for us.” During the recent recession, business declined about 12 percent, but L.J. Aviation still was able to make a profit, he said.
The charter aviation climate is “kind of a mixed picture,” said Daniel Hubbard, spokesman for for the National Business Aviation Association, a Washington-based trade group that represents 8,600 companies like Kilkeary’s.
Business fell by 30 percent during the recession, and still must recover an additional 10 percent to reach pre-2008 levels, Hubbard said.
In the depths of the recession, business flight hours plunged by 40 percent, he said. Charter aviation has rebounded since then but has been flat this year. Because aviation is tied closely to the economy, the charter business still “is facing strong headwinds,” Hubbard said.
After leaving the Army in 1970, Kilkeary bought a tractor-trailer to haul steel. Then he flew a plane for the former Bentley Coal Co., hauling machine parts to mines. He flew former WTAE-TV weatherman Joe DeNardo to schools where DeNardo presented programs about weather.
Kilkeary’s flying business took off when a company leasing a Learjet that he and the coal operator owned no longer wanted to use the jet. “I was thrust into the charter business full time because I had a payment on the airplane,” and that payment was “substantial,” Kilkeary said.
At about the same time, Kilkeary said, Dr. Thomas Starzl at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center was breaking ground in organ transplant operations. Organs from around the nation needed to be flown to Pittsburgh as soon as possible.
“Almost every night I would fly a transplant,” Kilkeary said. He was on call 24 hours a day but it was a “blessing” because it kept the Learjet up in the sky, earning money.
L.J. Aviation, named for Learjet, has benefited through the years from strong customers, including Alcoa Inc. and Kennametal Inc., which is headquartered just across Route 981 from the airport.
The Marcellus shale natural gas exploration and production boom has filtered down to the charter aviation business, Kilkeary said.
Gas industry executives charter helicopters to view faraway drilling sites in Pennsylvania and Ohio, take contractors to view jobs or take investors to see operations, Kilkeary said.
About L.J. Aviation
Location: Arnold Palmer Regional Airport, Unity
Business: Charter aviation, aircraft management services and jet fuel services
Ownership: L.J. Associates Inc., which is owned by Edward Kilkeary Sr. and other family members.
Executives: Edward Kilkeary Sr., CEO; Edward Kilkeary Jr., vice president of operations; Daniel Kilkeary, vice president of sales; Kellie Hegeman, human resources director; and Mary Ann Kilkeary, secretary-treasurer.
Revenue: Not disclosed