May 21, 2020
A few months ago, Jim Sponder was leading his aviation maintenance, repair and overhaul company on a swift ascent.
The 1 Vision Aviation firm he founded in Sioux City, Iowa, expanded to Salina, sparking the roaring reincarnation of a huge hangar in the Salina Regional Airport and Industrial Center. Sponder began the expansion in September with roughly 50 employees, and by early this spring, the roster had soared to 90; some of them part-time and other apprentices.
These days, only a dozen folks report for work, thanks to a global pandemic that has socked many businesses and decimated local, state and national economies.
“We have no planes we’re working on right now. I had to let most of my workers go,” Sponder said. “We’re anxious to get back to full strength.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted millions worldwide, and aviation business at the Salina Airport were immune.
Four airport businesses are adjusting to “business as unusual.” “Thanks in part to location and a good mix of customers, business is improving” said Aaron Maurer, regional manager of Avflight Salina, a nationally known mid-continent refueling stop.
“Over this past week, there’s been an increase in corporate traffic, not nearly as high as it was before, but we’re definitely seeing it trend up. That’s a good sign,” he said. “We’ve seen the business (in Salina) diversify with military. That’s been the biggest impact.”
Day-to-day operations are much the same for Bob Pahls, co-owner of Schilling Aviation Services, at 2010 Rogers Court, with his wife, Janet, the company accountant.
“We’re busy,” he said. “Life hasn’t really changed too much for us.”
One of the company’s two employees was forced to leave for personal reasons and hasn’t been able to return since the state locked down weeks ago.
“We have the same customers we’ve always had,” Bob Pahls said. “Airplanes still need annual inspections and repairs.”
Local pilots are the ones “keeping me busy,” he said.
The well-known Saturday morning coffees in the Schilling Aviation hangar have continued — open at 8 a.m. and lasting sometimes into the afternoon — but attendance has dwindled a bit.
“Some of the older gentlemen and doctors and dentists quit coming out,” Pahls said. “I think the pandemic has something to do with that.”
Operations have slowed somewhat for LifeSave Transport, a Wichita-based air ambulance company with a crew of 16 workers at Salina Regional Airport.
That’s a typical condition Kansas-wide, said Courtney Bachrodt, LifeSave’s director of business operations.
“Flight volume for all (emergency medical services) across the state has been affected and is down,” she said. “We transport lots of trauma patients every year, and we’re not seeing that because people have been staying home and are not getting hurt as much. Elective surgeries are down.”
Still, LifeSave remains “mission ready” around the clock, Bachrodt said.
The company has transported some COVID patients as well, she said.
“Just like everybody else, we’re taking extra precautions to disinfect and protect our crews,” Bachrodt said. “Crews take personal protective equipment to protect themselves and patients as well.”
While “EMS in general” has seen fewer transports, she expects busier days ahead.
“I’m sure we’ll see that pick up here soon, and we’ll be ready to respond,” Bachrodt said. “We are still here, mission ready to serve the community and help transport patients.
“Salina’s been a great base of operations for us. The airport has been a wonderful host.”
Voids in Avflight’s business from normal clientele have been somewhat filled by other fueling customers, Maurer said, such as military operations and cargo planes.
“We get some aircraft, helicopters and others that utilize Smoky Hill (Kansas Air National Guard) range,” he said. “We’re fortunate enough to serve both.”
The uptick in corporate traffic is “a good sign” as well, Maurer said. COVID-19 has taken a toll, he said, hopefully a short-lived one.
“We definitely had to downsize and right size our staffing levels. The cuts were pretty small,” Maurer said. “We think in the next month or so, we will start to bring people back. We’re projecting to have a pretty busy summer.”
AvFlight’s repertoire of customer service still includes catering food, he said. Workers are stepping up regular cleaning of AvFlight facilities in all 22 locations across the United States — also one each in Canada and Northern Ireland. The business buildings are cleaned after every flight, he said.
Current events have prompted the company to branch into offering another service. Customers have the option of having their aircraft cleaned when they stop for fuel.
“Cleaning, onboard aircraft disinfecting, is something we’re working on. We’ve had a large number of requests for that service,” Maurer said. “The whole process takes less than 10 minutes and they will have a clean aircraft.”
The rash of bad news hardly spells doom for the hard-working Sponder of 1Vision Aviation.
He was visited this past Wednesday (May 20) by Greg Lambert, director of business administration, heavy checks and planning at Endeavor Air, of Minneapolis, Minn., a wholly owned subsidiary of Delta Air Lines.
Up to 35 of Delta’s jets have been stored since March outside of Big Bertha in Salina, and 1Vision workers have been performing “storage tasks” on the planes. “Every 14 days, there are certain tasks required to be done on the aircraft in storage,” Lambert said.
He and other officials were in Salina Wednesday to announce that 1Vision will be receiving more business from Endeavor.
“We’ve worked with 1Vision for several years,” he said. “Their ability to produce quality work on time has been a strength for us, and because of that, we are looking to send additional work to them.”
The visit was a great development for 1Vision. “That’s a huge thing. It means a lot of fast growth for us,” Sponder said.
COVID-19 has yet to thwart his plans of growing 1Vision in Salina to 450 workers by next year.
“Our comeback has to do with how soon the public starts flying again,” Sponder said. Seven of the Delta jets stored in Salina were put back into service this month, Lambert said, and two more will be put back May 29. That’s a “good sign,” Sponder said, and it might just build momentum.
“People in aviation will read up on this and it will get them to thinking about coming back,” Sponder said. “This could be a confidence builder, and it could help us bring in great talent (airframe and power plant mechanics) to the Salina area.”
As 1Vision grows, it also helps other local companies, such as aircraft getting repaired or inspected, buying fuel from AvFlight before leaving Salina.
“It’s a good thing to have the military and 1Vision on the airfield,” AvFlight’s Maurer said. “We definitely have a great partnership with them.”
The Salina Airport Authority is all-in for tenants, said Tim Rogers, executive director.
“Our job is to help them compete for business,” he said. “We’re known as America’s Fuel Stop, and with Schilling Aviation and 1Vision, we are America’s MRO.”
“Avflight Salina has enhanced Salina’s reputation as America’s Fuel Stop, and Schilling Aviation and 1 Vision Salina are building the airport’s reputation as America’s MRO Center.”