A new terminal for passengers of private jets at Opa-locka Executive Airport looks like something out of South Beach. The sleek interior has a white terrazzo floor, a lounge area with a bar, and a passenger service counter that resembles the front desk of a boutique hotel. Outside the entrance, an abstract red-metal sculpture is installed among freshly planted palm trees.
Opened in January by a well-funded company called Orion Jet Center, the new terminal building is part of a surge in construction at county-owned Opa-locka Executive Airport, a former military training airport that is gaining popularity as a full-service station for private jets.
After a long development drought, construction activity at the 87-year-old Opa-locka Executive began picking up six years ago, creating fresh facilities fit for the region’s jet-set crowd. The number of private jets based there has shot up to 147 from 90 five years ago and from 53 a decade ago. Now more than half of the aircraft based there are jets, up from about one-third in 2009 and one-sixth in 2004.
“Opa-locka always had this stigma of being kind of a depressed neighborhood. ... No one really wanted to go there in their private jet,” said Chris Blanchard, co-owner of Chelsea Aviation Group, a private charter-jet service based at the Opa-locka airport. But the development of fresh facilities at Opa-locka Executive in recent years has added to its list of lures for owners of private jets, including lower operating costs than at Miami International Airport.
“Private jet owners want to go to the nice, new, pretty buildings. They love that kind of stuff,” Blanchard said. “What we are seeing is a huge influx of South Americans: Venezuelans, Colombians, Brazilians ... the guys who are coming in here and dumping money into the real estate market, those cash buyers.” Miami’s growing reputation as an adult playground also has added to private jet traffic at the Opa-locka airport. “You have things like Ultra, like Art Basel, the boat shows: Miami is such an event-driven town that you pull from everywhere,” he said.
In part, the airport’s growing popularity is due to the increasing number of celebrities, hedge-fund investors and wealthy international visitors who use their own aircraft or ones from fractional-ownership companies like NetJets when they attend events like Art Basel in Miami Beach and the Sony tennis tournament, or to use new multimillion dollar condos sprouting throughout the region. Its location seven miles north of Miami International and near major highway systems makes it the most convenient of the county’s three general aviation airports to downtown, Miami Beach and Fort Lauderdale. (The other two, Tamiami and Homestead, are far to the south.) And it offers one of the longest general aviation runways in the nation.
Credit also belongs to three companies that do business at the Opa-locka airport as so-called fixed-base operators: Fontainebleau Aviation, Miami Executive Aviation and Orion Jet Center.
Like other fixed-base operators, or FBOs, the three provide products and services to owners of private jets and propeller planes including fuel, maintenance and hangar space. But the three FBOs at Opa-locka Executive also have collectively invested more than $125 million since 2008 in terminals, hangars, offices and other new facilities that support hundreds of jobs.
Orion Jet Center, for example, already had 200,000 square feet of hangars, offices and other leasable space at the Opa-locka airport when the company opened its new 18,000-square-foot passenger terminal in January. It leases space to a mix of tenants including aircraft mechanics, corporate flight planners and an exotic car rental agency as well as private jet owners.
“Orion has over 40 employees and dozens of tenants, which have hundreds of employees of their own,” said Eric Greenwald, president of Orion Jet Center and its parent company, AA Acquisitions, whose principal investor is former banker Leonard Abess Jr. Since the parent company obtained a long-term lease at the Opa-locka airport in 2007, “our overall investment, including our lease acquisition, is in excess of $60 million.”
Greenwald said AA Acquisitions has a long-term lease on about 200 acres at the Opa-locka airport, including its 45-acre Orion Jet Center campus. Under a conceptual master plan, the parent company would arrange for other developers to put up “well over a million square feet” of new structures on the remaining 155 acres.
Greenwald said one possible use of the 155 acres would be construction of an aircraft maintenance, repair and overhaul for one of the world’s two leading aircraft manufacturers, Airbus and Boeing, both of which have large flight-simulator training facilities in the Miami area. Other possible developments include such non-aviation facilities as a hotel or retail center. “All of our land is aviation-accessible land, but we have flexible development rights,” he said. “We can develop up to 50 percent of our land for non-aviation use.”
In 2007, when AA Acquisitions acquired a 70-year county lease on the land it controls at the Opa-locka airport, the company’s investors included Abess as well as Miami industrial real estate developer Michael Adler and the late Milton Ferrell, an attorney who died after the lease acquisition. “I eventually bought Michael out,” said Abess, a private jet owner who has been flying out of the Opa-locka airport since the mid-1990s.
Abess said he long considered the airport ripe for redevelopment and jumped at the chance to invest in AA Acquisitions when Adler and Ferrell invited him to become an investor in the company. Abess made headlines nationwide when he divided $60 million of his proceeds from the 2008 sale of City National Bank of Florida among longtime employees of the Miami-based financial institution, roughly the same amount as AA Acquisitions has invested so far in the Opa-locka airport.
Abess said his family has put a personal touch on the design of such facilities as the new Orion Jet Center passenger terminal. His daughter Ashley worked closely with the architects of the passenger terminal and hired its interior designer. In addition, “she worked on all the branding, the website, our logo; all of our material for the public,” Abess said. “I didn’t change anything. I loved everything she had done.”
He owns the red-metal sculpture outside the Orion Jet Center passenger terminal, created in 2010 by acclaimed artist Mark di Suvero. “Mark’s a friend of my wife and I,” said Abess, whose wife suggested installing the sculpture outside the terminal. In addition, Abess personally worked with Miami landscape designer Raymond Jungles to create the green scene outside the terminal and provided the palm trees from his own stock. “I own the nursery the trees came out of,” Abess said. “It’s my hobby.”
Fontainebleau Aviation, which built its first aircraft hangar at the Opa-locka airport in 2009, has built six more since then and is getting ready to break ground again. “Now we have seven hangars totaling 160,000 square feet,” said Bobby Courtney, general manager of Fontainebleau Aviation. “It’s about a $50 million investment.” And yes, that’s the same “Fontainebleau” as the celebrity-haunt hotel; both are owned by by Aventura-based Turnberry Associates, whose CEO Jeffrey Soffer is a licensed pilot.
Fontainebleau Aviation has developed about half of its 26.5-acre leasehold at the Opa-locka airport, and the company is preparing to develop the remaining 13 acres, located along the northern end of Le Jeune Road, which leads to the entrance of the airport.
“We do have plans in the works to invest another $20 million within that little [13-acre] spot,” Courtney said. “We’re looking at an additional 60,000 square feet of hangar space and an additional 25,000 square feet of retail, office and ‘FBO’ space.’’ The timetable calls for ground-breaking late this year.
Fontainebleau sub-leases the land from another company called J.P. Aviation Investments, which obtained a 50-year lease on the land about 15 years ago. James Robinson, the owner of J.P. Aviation, does business primarily as a buyer and seller of aircraft together with his sons Tony, vice president of the company, and J.T., chief of operations.
In addition, a real estate company called CPF Investment Group led by Ernesto Cambo has invested about $34 million in the development of a 178-acre, mixed-use business park called AVE Aviation and Commerce Center on the west side of the Opa-locka airport. Developments there include a 500,000-square- foot U.S. Postal Service sorting facility, and more projects are in the pipeline.
Aircraft engine service company Turbopower plans to become a tenant of a 100,000-square-foot facility at the AVE business park, which would replace the company’s current location in Miami Lakes. “From a business and strategic point of view, that makes more sense than for us to be in Miami Lakes,” said Rana Das, president of Turbopower. He said he expects his company to move to the new facility at the Opa-locka airport in about nine months: “We're looking at probably January of 2015. ... Construction should be starting in the next couple of weeks.”
Among other pending projects, CPF Investment plans to build six hangars along the airfield for Fort Lauderdale-based Banyan Air Service, which would become the fourth fixed-based operator at the Opa-locka airport.
The six-hangar development would be the first expansion for Banyan Air Service outside Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport, the company's base of operations since its start-up in 1979. “Many of the company’s most valued strategic partners and customers, which include domestic and international aircraft owners, corporations and government agencies, already have a presence at the [Opa-locka] airport,” Banyan said in a press release announcing the planned expansion. Donald Campion, president of Banyan, was unavailable for comment.
Banyan will be competing with other fixed-base operators at the Opa-locka airport including Miami Executive Aviation, a partially owned subsidiary of Denver-based Ross Aviation, which last November opened a new complex with a 38,000-square-foot hangar and 5,000 square feet of office space. Miami Executive Aviation has filled about 90 percent of the hangar with aircraft based there or temporarily stored there. Tenants based there include the air ambulance service of Miami Children’s Hospital. Office tenants include a limousine service and an aircraft-interior design firm. So far, the company has invested about $16 million in construction projects at the airport, including an 80,000- square-foot hangar built in 2008.
Miami Executive’s 21-acre leasehold at Opa-locka Executive is now built out. “We’re landlocked,” said Fabio Alexander, the chief executive officer and an equity partner of Miami Executive Aviation together with Ross Aviation. He also is the chief marketing officer of Ross.
The company plans no further development at Opa-locka Executive “other than just developing the business,” particularly as a refueling station for private jets carrying business executives to and from Latin America, Alexander said. “Our target is executives of Fortune 500 companies that fly in, from American Express to Coca-Cola to DuPont. ... We provide ramp-and-hangar leasing, fuel, catering, maintenance and charter services through our sister companies and our tenants.”
For much of its history, the Opa-locka airport served as a military training airfield. Civilian airplane owners became the primary users of the Opa-locka airport after the Vietnam War ended. Like the Homestead and Tamiami general aviation airports — that, is airports with no scheduled commercial service — the 1,810-acre Opa-locka airport is a popular base for flight training schools and individual owners of propeller-driven airplanes.
But by the time Miami Executive started fueling planes there in 1996, the airport had hit a low point. “No one wanted to be here,” Alexander said. “Everything was wrong here. There was crime. There were planes being stolen.’’
By the mid-1990s, the airport also had become a dumping ground for airplanes that had reached the end of their lifespan, Opa-locka airport manager Nelson Mejias said via email. Mejias said the turnaround at the airport began when the county stepped up efforts to keep abandoned aircraft off the airfield.
The cleanup, said Mejias, helped the airport evolve “from a training airfield to a corporate airfield, with larger jet aircraft being the predominant type of traffic for the airfield.”
Finding developers who could build new facilities at the airport proved more challenging than keeping derelict airplanes off the property. It happened partly through trial and error.
Before the mid-2000s, “we had developers who were holding leases and had been holding onto those leases for ungodly amounts of time, and they weren’t performing,” said Gregory C. Owens, the assistant director of business development and retention at the Miami-Dade Aviation Department, which owns and oversees MIA and the three general-aviation airports.
Under pressure from the Miami-Dade Aviation Department and the board of county commissioners, the disappointing lessees eventually abandoned their planned projects at the Opa-locka airport by exiting their lease agreements. “Two of them decided to sell their leases,” Owens said, “and one, the board just took the lease away from the developer.” The long-term lease sellers included Opa-locka Aviation Group, which was headed by developer Matthew Hudson, and Renaissance Airpark, which was run by developer Charles Pasquale. The county took a third long-term lease away from Opa-locka Community Development Corp., founded by former state Rep. Willie Logan.
Major improvements in security cleared the way for the build-up in the number of private jets based at Opa-locka Executive. The airport is home to the helicopter operations of Miami-Dade Fire Air Rescue and the Miami-Dade Police Department as well as the South Florida station of the U.S. Coast Guard and a U.S. Customs Service office.
And then there’s the glamour crowd. In December 2013, Netjets arranged 200 flights to Opa-locka to bring a total of 800 passengers to Art Basel — up from 180 flights the previous year. EAJ, a charter service and sister company to Miami Executive Aviation, has transported celebrities including Miami-based recording artist Julio Iglesias, actress Jennifer Lopez, retired basketball star Michael Jordan — and in January this year, embattled pop star Justin Bieber. Visitors to the Opa-locka airport also include “a lot of heads of state,” said Alexander, the CEO of Miami Executive.
The growing population of resident jets has contributed to four consecutive annual increases in the total number of aircraft operations at Opa-locka in every year since they bottomed in 2009 amid an economic recession. That year, the number of landings and takeoffs was 99,718. In 2013, it hit 119,533, up 10 percent from 2012.
There’s more to the lure than location. The Opa-locka airport is especially friendly to jet traffic because one of its three runways is 8,002 feet long, one of longest at any general aviation airport in the nation. While Miami International Airport does accept private aircraft, it charges landing fees; the county’s general aviation airports do not. And because general aviation airports have substantially less traffic than commercial airports, they allow private jet owners to land and take off rapidly without getting in line behind other aircraft.
As general-aviation aircraft operations at MIA have risen each of the past four years, to 18,259 in 2013, the county-run airport system has sought to shift traffic to the general aviation airports.
“We want that G.A. [general aviation] traffic to stay at the G.A. airports, because for each minute that a commercial jet is on the ground, that’s cost to that airline. We want to keep the cost as low as possible,” said Owens, the assistant director of business development and retention at the Miami-Dade Aviation Department.
Some traffic gains at Opa-locka also may stem from a congestion-producing runway extension at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. A construction project that will result in two parallel runways, each more than 8,000 feet long, temporarily has left the Broward County airport with one open runway. The runway project is scheduled for completion in September.
But perhaps the most critical factor in the growth of Opa-locka airport as a haven for private jets is the county aviation department’s efforts to attract long-term investors — like Abess and the Soffer family — who can deliver on leasehold-development promises.
“Fortunately, we have people with the access to capital who can develop the airport,” Owens said, “and they’re doing it.”