Monday, 31 October 2011 13:15
Attractive women greeting people as they de-plane, young pilots jetting off at a moment’s notice, and casual references to celebrity sightings?
Sounds like something from the ABC TV series Pan Am. But we’re talking about the University Air Center, right here in Gainesville. It’s referred to as a fixed-base operator, or “FBO,” which means it’s the one-stop shop for private airplanes (not to be confused with the commercial Gainesville Regional Airport next door). The men and women working there offer aircraft maintenance, refueling, flight instruction and reservation assistance for hotels and car rentals in Gainesville. The UAC is also responsible for flying LifeSouth blood donations, a trip they take 363 days of the year.
By Rachel Rakoczy; Photos by Sean Kelly
Like Pan Am’s four flight attendants on the TV show, the UAC employs four young women dedicated to providing customer service, whether that means offering water to people as they get off the planes or scheduling repair services for aircraft owners who keep their planes at the FBO. We talked to the staff at the UAC to see what it’s like to work in a local aviation hotspot.
Erin Hogan, Melissa Bennett, Casey Vaughn and Kathryn York love their jobs. As Erin, pictured in our photo shoot, explains, “It’s so miscellaneous. It’s different each day.” As CSRs (customer service representatives), the women arrange fuel for clients with hangars at Gainesville Regional Airport as well as for transient pilots, process billing and make car and hotel reservations for people who fly in. To do this, they have to become familiar with aviation terms.
Erin, 22, didn’t come into the company well-versed in the jargon, but she picked it up quickly. When she first started about a year ago, a pilot called in a landing time over the radio and began making a long list of “demands” about what the plane needed. She didn’t know how to deal with it all.
“Meanwhile, they were having some laughs in the back,” she says—turns out it was just a prank. Today, Erin is working to get her pilot’s license in hopes of becoming a commercial pilot. Casey, 22 years old and a senior business major at UF, grew up around airplanes. She was picking up her dad and brother, both pilots, from the UAC and started chatting with the CSR behind the desk.
“A few days later, I took in my application and I’ve been working there ever since,” she told us. Customer service isn’t only needed at the front desk. To ensure good service when the pilots and their passengers arrive and depart, the women take turns working with the line crew, marshalling planes to their parking spots and driving people to and from their planes in golf carts.
“It’s great to get outside and up close with the planes,” Kathryn York, 20, told us. It’s a CSR’s job to interact with the people who fly in; that can sometimes mean celebrities like Tim Tebow, John Travolta (who owns a house in Ocala and is a pilot), Ty Pennington, or as was the case when the Gators played the Crimson Tide, Nick Lachey and Vanessa Manillo.
But as Marianne Munn, the UAC’s head dispatcher (and herself a former CSR), told us, employees have to play it cool. This means treating famous people just like anyone else. “We are not supposed to make a big deal out of them arriving here,” she said. “We try to respect their privacy. We do not ask for autographs and pictures.” (We couldn’t help but ask for Marianne’s picture in our photo shoot, though.)
As head dispatcher, she handles transferring calls and does most of the price estimates for charter flights. She said the company is like a family. Since 2008, Marianne has climbed up the ranks from CSR and dispatcher to CSR manager to her current position. Likewise, Erin has already begun to take advantage of company policy of promoting from within. She is the manager of the customer service representatives between her time spent training to become a pilot.
General manager Bill Pokorny loves to promote from within because then the person’s character and work ethic are already known, he explained. This policy keeps the company like a family, as Marianne described it. The opportunity to move up the ladder is not only for CSRs. It also applies to the pilots and linemen.
“Ever since I was little, I wanted to be a pilot,” Jake Wilson, 20, told us. He’s in flight school at the UAC, and a lineman, which means he parks and directs planes and refuels them. Working as a lineman is the “bottom rung” in the world of aviation. Jake has also been able to network for his degree in engineering (he’s a junior at Santa Fe College), by talking to engineers who have flown in.
Like Jake, Jason Morgan, pictured in our shoot, was a lineman while in flight school. He too went to school with plans outside of the University Air Center. But Jason, 29, realized in his junior year at the University of Florida that he didn’t want to go to medical school. He majored in microbiology and chemistry and became a flight instructor in 2005.
“It’s either engraved in you or not,” he told us about his love of flying. “I remember I’d beg my mom to take me to the airport to see the planes take off and land.”
Now, as UAC’s chief pilot, Jason has plenty of stories to share about the job that he loves. A few years ago, the company got a call that a flight was needed immediately in Miami. After he and a copilot flew to Miami, he realized he would be flying two film celebrities, Bradley Cooper and Leslie Bibb, to New York. Unlike the CSRs and dispatchers, pilots are supposed to “be the flight attendant, if you will” for their charter flights. Some charter planes only fit about eight people, so a pilot is responsible for catering and getting drinks for the passengers.
“They were super, super nice people,” he told us. “It was a blast to fly them.” It seems that everyone at UAC enjoys the family atmosphere, but not everyone in the “family” plans to stick with aviation. Kathryn, one of the CSRs, plans to transfer from Santa Fe College to Florida State University in January to study International Affairs, Environmental Science and Japanese; she says she has loved the people she works with and the job. Casey summed up the various elements that make them love their job at the small—but busy—University Air Center.
“Every day is different. The airplanes, the pilots, the situations—it’s never a dull moment.”