May 6, 2016
Andres Gonzalez knew from an early age that he would work in aviation, although he didn’t plan on being a business owner by age 28. In fact, it took fewer than 10 years for the certified airframe and powerplant (A&P) technician to move from working the ramp at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) to running a thriving maintenance operation at California’s Santa Monica Municipal Airport (SMO).
Gonzalez’ first aviation job came in 2006, working the graveyard shift at LAX while taking classes during the day to earn his A&P. “After six months or so, a friend of mine got a job at Santa Monica,” he said. “I applied as soon as an opening came up.”
Gonzalez spent evenings and weekends pumping fuel at SMO, and after earning his A&P in January 2008, he found work at Bill’s Air Center, an SMO-based maintenance facility specializing in piston-engine aircraft, including types commonly flown by business aviators. It wasn’t long before the next opportunity presented itself.
“Bill [Heard, who founded the business in 1989] was ready to retire,” Gonzalez recalled. “I found a partner to come up with a purchase plan, but he backed out a few months later, so I put the idea aside. I thought that would be the end of it.”
Others around him wouldn’t let go of that idea, however. “Everyone told me it would be a smart move,” Gonzalez said. “I eventually realized I had everything to gain and, everything to lose. Without taking risks, though, there can never be much of a reward.”
Uncertainty Over SMO’s Future Weighed on Decision
Gonzalez signed the acquisition papers in February 2014, following long talks with Heard about the beleaguered airport’s future prospects. Although SMO is owned and operated by the city and has federal obligations to allow aeronautical activities at the airport on reasonable terms, officials have repeatedly worked to implement measures to inhibit access by general aviation, with the ultimate goal of shuttering the historic airfield.
“That was one of my biggest misgivings, because it was clear that the city didn’t like [SMO] and basically wanted us to go away,” Gonzalez said. His first direct experience with that attitude came when city officials refused to renew the business’s long-term lease in March 2014; since then, rent has been paid month-to-month.
“The city’s attitude is unfortunate, because in a couple of years I’ll likely be able to expand,” he noted. “It’s clear the city will do anything within its power to limit us.”
About half of SMO’s business comes from training schools on the field, although the airport’s landing fees incentivize student pilots to fly to other area airports to practice. City policies dictate when Gonzalez and his technicians are able to perform certain tasks – for example, run-ups may only be performed at certain times – and state and local inspectors closely monitor compliance with environmental policies.
“We really try to lessen our [environmental] impact, disposing of oil and tires properly and recycling everything we can,” he said. “It usually takes just a few minutes for the inspectors to see that everything’s in line, and we look for ways to improve every day.”
Meanwhile, city officials remain intent on eliminating aviation-related businesses from their airport. On April 28, Justice Aviation – the largest flight school on the field, and one of Gonzalez’s best customers – accepted a $450,000 buyout from the city to shutter operations.
Although Gonzalez said he expects the field’s remaining flight schools to buy up Justice’s fleet, minimizing his losses in the near future, he and other business owners on the field are extremely concerned by the precedent set by the city’s actions.
Despite his difficulties, Gonzalez is optimistic about SMO’s future.
“I believe the airport is going to be here for a very long time, but the question is how the city might further restrict our operations,” he added.
For now, Gonzalez is focused on building his business to support his employees and his growing family. “I have a wife and a newborn son,” he said. “My [employees] are like family to me, too; they’re incredible. My customers are amazing. Everyone has been very supportive.”