Hendry County, Florida, is situated in the vast no-man’s land just north of the Everglades and west of Lake Okeechobee. Approximately equivalent in size to Rhode Island, the entire county hosts a population of barely 38,000 people.
That being the case, this agricultural wonderland might not be the first place you’d think to find a successful general aviation business. It might even be a location you would run from, having recognized several negatives that might well prevent a GA business from succeeding there.
Yet one GA business has found true success in the wide open spaces of south central Florida, and it continues to thrive there.
There’s a lesson in there for anyone who would care to listen.
Airglades Airport sits in the midst of sugar cane fields that radiate for miles out from the runway. Only 75 feet wide, but nearly 6,000 feet long, the pavement provides a starting point for an aviation-oriented business. But like the ramps and hangars that sit alongside the runway, the infrastructure is not what attracts customers.
That component of the business requires more creative input. The human element is where the magic happens.
Jason Jacobs understands the need for a high degree of customer service if a GA business hopes to be truly successful. He and his company, Jacobs Flight Services, have broken through the barriers that seem to vex other providers, and they’ve come out on the other side stronger, more resilient and, best of all, with a long line of satisfied customers who sing their praises.
Of course it wasn’t always as it is today. Jacobs started in the depths of the American economic downturn, in 2007. It was a small flight training operation in a very small town, far removed from the glitzy population centers of tourist-rich Florida. Finding a niche wasn’t necessarily easy or obvious. Yet the team persevered and built the business, day by day, customer by customer.
Success hasn’t come quickly, or easily, but it has come nonetheless. Perhaps because the individuals guiding the ship have a vision and a plan for achieving something special by using their unique location as a positive rather than a negative.
A fleet of well-maintained, sharp-looking Cessna 150s line the ramp outside Jacobs’ main hangar. They aren’t new, or sexy, or filled with glass panels or new-fangled gizmos. But they’re dependable. These are essentially interchangeable airplanes. A pilot who flies one can easily transition to another, which makes airplane availability a strength for both the flight school and the students it serves.
Inside the hangar sits a C-172RG and a Duchess that students can earn their commercial tickets in. Beside them space exists for the company’s turbine and turbo-prop powered aircraft that are available for charter work.
Add to that mix a company that is willing and ready to provide aircraft management services, aircraft rental, tours of the lush Florida landscape from the air, and stocks a selection of common pilot supplies, and you’ve got a company with diversity built into its DNA.
Erkan Ozmeric came to Jacobs from Turkey via Seattle where he was employed by Boeing. His title at Jacobs is International Marketing Consultant, and his success at filling that role is evidenced by the number of foreign students distributed throughout the ramp, hangar, classroom, and the sky above.
In fact, the first person I met after landing was a student who had only arrived for training two days before. He was professional in his demeanor and casual in his style of dress. A perfect fit for south Florida. He spoke English well and directed me to the testing facility, where he introduced me to Erkan and Jason.
As that first interaction suggested, customer service is not a promise at Jacobs Flight Services, it’s the culture they live and work with. It extends even to the students, who are happy to provide directions to a visitor or answer questions of a curious newcomer.
The student population is not entirely foreign, however. Jacobs’ doors are open to anyone who is willing to walk through them. One of their local customers who has done quite well is Mike Zamora. Mike worked in the sugar industry, as many of the locals do. Thanks to the extensive fields of sugar cane that surround it, Clewiston is billed as America’s Sweetest Town. Sugar pays the bills. But Mike wanted to fly. He wanted a career that got his feet out of the dirt, where he could see the world from a higher vantage point.
Zamora came to Jacobs as a student pilot. Today he’s a flight instructor teaching others how control an airplane in flight and make their own dreams come true. Where his path will lead is unclear at this point. Maybe he’ll go to the airlines. Maybe he’ll fly corporate. Or maybe he’ll stay right there in Hendry County living the good life. It doesn’t matter really, because Mike and Erkan, Jason and their students have all benefited from a career in GA that puts customer service front and center in their daily operations.
As Frank Sinatra so melodiously sang, “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere.” Maybe Clewiston, Florida, and Jacobs Flight Services have a thing or two to teach the rest of us about how to thrive in the GA marketplace.
After visiting their operation and spending time with the folks on the ground there, I’m a believer.