Understanding the success of Kearny’s HHI Heliport.
Identify a potentially profitable niche with a matching demand and probable high growth; then service it with a high quality and uniquely positioned product. That formula explains the success and industry prestige attained by HHI Heliport in Kearny, New Jersey.
The Helo Holdings Inc. heliport (commonly referred to as either HHI Heliport or Kearny Heliport) opened in December 2010 and is the first helicopter-only FBO in the NYC/Manhattan area. A mere two minutes flying time from Manhattan and New York City, it operates 7am to 7pm, seven days a week from a site at Kearny’s River Terminal Development. HHI heliport is a full-service FBO that offers pilot facilities, fuel, parking, maintenance facilities, hangarage and storage; all in modern, well designed premises.
The Northeast corridor is the busiest civil helicopter operating area on the globe and HHI perfectly positioned itself to benefit from that environment. Nothing to do with that positioning, however, came about by chance. The driving force behind HHI and its success is Michael (Mike) Renz (Chief Operations Officer), who has been ably assisted and supported throughout by Jeff Hyman (CEO / VP sales and marketing). Both men are major investors in the heliport company. Renz is vastly experienced after 35-plus years in the aviation industry with well over 15,000 flight hours logged, FAA approval as a check-airman and full maintenance engineering qualifications. He and Hyman have a history over many years of working together in Analar Corporation, of which Renz is the owner and president – a long-established aviation company with a division specializing in private and charter helicopter operations, while Hyman is currently Analar’s VP of sales and marketing. Hyman obviously admires Renz and considers him a mentor and role model – almost a father-figure, recalling that it was Renz who passed on so much of his extensive knowledge to help Hyman get up to speed with the helicopter industry when the pair first met.
In about 2001 they were considering expansion and diversification opportunities within the aviation industry around NYC and Manhattan, initially investigating an existing helicopter city-shuttle business model with a chequered history. After eliminating that option when it became apparent that the distance involved guaranteed marginal profitability at best, they came up with the concept of establishing the area’s first and only helicopter-only FBO much closer to the epicenter of the city’s air traffic demands, taking advantage of the substantial helicopter numbers and traffic in and around the metropolitan areas of New York City and Manhattan.
The intention was to build such a facility very close to Manhattan and offering all the services and amenities expected at a corporate airport. It took
a further four years to finally secure a suitable piece of property; the 7¼-acre site at River Terminal Development Corporation in Kearney, New Jersey.
As it turned out though, that was barely the beginning. Land use variance, municipal town approval, FAA/DOT permits, and a reasonable lease with the
landlord all had to be secured or negotiated and it took about six years in total to finally obtain zoning approval for the business. Hyman described
the process as ‘a labor of love – or insanity!’ The result has undoubtedly been well worth the effort, however. From the day HHI heliport opened its
doors, Analar has had tenant clients based at the facility. Liberty Helicopters was the first permanent tenant from day one - conducting predominantly
helicopter tours from the city, with additional charter work and fueling from Kearny – but the number quickly grew and the heliport now boasts six
tenants. Apart from operations by Analar, other regular clients and the tenant operators, the HHI heliport is extremely busy with itinerant traffic.
Private, corporate and commercial operators appreciate the ability to refuel, park, wait or rest at such a miniscule transit-distance from Manhattan
and NYC. As Hyman explained, “We’re in our fourth year now and we’ve become part of the fabric of the community, both here in Kearny and in the minds
of the New York aviation fraternity. We pride ourselves on taking care of our clients and tenants and the community now knows that.” For regular and
frequent users, a reduction in transit time of ten minutes or more on every flight can equate to savings of hundreds of thousands of dollars every
year, so it should come as no surprise that the HHI heliport has become so busy. Vic Garha has managed the day-to-day business of the heliport since
it opened and he made the observation that the reduced transit time also reduced the maintenance frequency and costs for operators, as less non-productive
flight-time is logged on machines, both operationally and for maintenance transfers.
The building that previously occupied the land where the facility now sits was originally a Model-A Ford manufacturing plant and, during WWII, a submarine
construction facility so a report was required to ascertain the historical value of the site before any construction approvals could be granted. Luckily
for the HHI plans though, that original building had been altered so many times that it had lost its historical value and could be demolished to make
way for the new heliport. Kearny is one of the only towns close enough to the city that is predominantly heavy industrial, so noise is not an issue.
In fact, it was discovered when testing the ambient noise levels that noise from the trucks on the nearby highway is actually louder than that generated
by the helicopter operations. One requirement placed on HHI as part of the zoning approvals was that the facility be built above the height of the
100-year flood level. This proved to be fortuitous as it helped mitigate the amount of damage inflicted by Hurricane Sandy in late October 2012, but
the heliport did not survive the ‘super-storm’ unscathed. The fuel truck was drowned and the whole fuel farm suffered water ingress, the rectification
of which necessitated a two-day exercise of draining, flushing, draining and re-filling. New York and New Jersey were particularly badly affected by
Sandy and, thanks to it’s elevated location, HHI was the only heliport in the area dispensing Jet-A fuel until about the end of that November. Since
then, the heliport has also ensured a large generator is permanently onsite, capable of powering the entire facility and eliminating dependence on
municipal power supplies - in case of any future event that may threaten external supply.
HHI’s Kearny heliport is dedicated solely to the helicopter community and alongside the 30,000 sqare-ft hangar and 24,000 gallon Jet-A fuel farm, boasts a 1,500 square foot pilot lounge offering comfortable furniture, free coffee and tea, a ‘snooze’ room, shower, wide screen Direct TV and wireless internet. While tenant operators also have their own office space and pilot’s lounge, their pilots often use the HHI facilities too, as Garha explained. “The regular pilots here will often drop into the public pilot’s lounge just because they want to mingle with other pilots once in a while. As you can see, our board is full of different machines and the local pilots sometimes like to just meet and hang out with the other guys.” New York on Air is a more recent tenant at HHI, running their rapidly growing aerial photography and imagery business from the facility and basing their AS355-F2s there, while the OH-58C of the Newark Police is also based at Kearny.Both Liberty and Analar have a maintenance presence on site, with their own maintenance personnel working on their and their customers’ machines. For major overhauls and the like, however, Analar will re-locate their machines to Princeton, where they have a major maintenance facility for both rotary and fixed-wing aircraft.
The current hangar is filled with around 24 helicopters and the success and popularity of HHI’s dedicated facility is such that a major expansion project is underway. A second hangar will give plenty of room for additional machines and Kearny-based clients, while the project’s two-story administration section will include op’s office space for tenant-customers as well as servicing HHI’s own office space needs.Mezzanine space and some existing modular office units provide yet further tenant-hosting options. It took two years to gain approvals for the new additions, which are expected to take 8-10 months to build and should be ready ‘with a little bit of luck’ by the end of the second quarter of 2016, enlarging the land-footprint of the facility to nine acres, up from the current 7¼ and increasing total hangarage to more than 45 machines. “I think we’ll be in pretty good shape with two hangars,” said Hyman. “It’s a thriving business and we’re doing pretty well right now. It took 18 months to two years to fill up our first hangar because we were a new operation; in fact, we were probably the first new aviation structure in New York in thirty years – either airports or heliports.” Hyman then advised that 80% of the space in the new hangar is already spoken for by just two new tenants. While no plans are in place for further expansion beyond the current project, Hyman did point out that there was another parcel of adjacent land that could be utilized if necessary in the future. Any future development would most likely be focused on increasing the already comprehensive maintenance and overhaul capabilities of the facility. Steady growth has been a feature of the Kearny operation and Garha remarked, “Its been getting busier right from day one. Every summer we seem to be pumping more and more fuel and seeing more machines.”
Over and above the normal increasing demand, there are times of extraordinary traffic. Garha gave an example of two companies’ fleet arriving while all of Liberty’s machines were on the ramp, around eighteen helicopters there at one time and all wanting fuel. Another example given was the occasional exercise by ‘Marine-One’ (the presidential helicopter flight). “When they practice going in to the Wall St heliport that airspace becomes effectively closed to all traffic,” he remarked. “That means that all those machines end up coming out here for a time. That’s how we get about twenty helicopters at once here. It becomes a mad-house, real fast!”
Tenants have 24-hour access to the heliport, but the operational hours for HHI are 0630-2100 during the summer and 0600-1900 during winter, when tourist numbers are well down. Jet-A fuel is available at Kearny – either with or without ‘Prist’ additive, depending on customer preference – and fuel sales are obviously a large part of the revenue and profitability of any FBO. For that reason HHI encourages operators to use the facility with financial benefits to uplift fuel there. Ramp and parking fees are waived for machines that uplift a specified minimum amount of fuel: 30 gallons of fuel per landing for light helicopters; 40 gallons for medium helicopters, and 60 gallons for the heavies. According to Garha, fuel demand at HHI can be such that the two 12,000 gallon tanks need refilling two or three times a week.After landing, parking is free for the first 3 hours, after which parking fees are assessed based on helicopter weight – from $30 to $70 per hour, based on aircraft weight. This arrangement adds to the popularity of the heliport as a wait-stop for machines dropping off clients in the city, as in-city heliports invariably charge landing and/or parking ramp-fees. Those fees could be up to around $1,500 for a machine waiting two hours so a two minute flight to Kearny really does become a ‘no-brainer’; particularly when the fuel is also cheaper than at an inner-city heliport. Scheduled parking is also available upon request to the operations office staff.
When asked what he most enjoyed about working at HHI heliport, Garha was most emphatic that it was the people, both staff and visitors. “The guys working here are all good fun. We’re pretty laid back so I really enjoy the training side of things and all the pilots have never been anything but pleasant,” he enthused. “Jeff is great to work for; he’s busy with his own management and planning so he lets me hold the reins here. I’m a licensed AME mechanic and, while I’ve been out of practice for a while, it’s been great to get involved here and immersed in it again. There is still a passion for aviation in everyone involved and just makes everything so much more enjoyable.”
With an already enviable reputation in the NorthEast aviation world, it seems likely that the imminent expansion of the HHI heliport facilities and services
will serve only to improve their standing and market share in the greater New York area.