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@ Work – Jet Center Taking Off

From left, St. Thomas Jet Center general manager Roy Romney, Susan Hancock and Michael Hancock.Before the year is out, St. Thomas will get a far-reaching improvement in flight convenience, a boon to those moneyed individuals who bring needed revenue to the island and a shot in the arm to our tourist economy.

Michael Hancock, owner with wife Susan of the St. Thomas Jet Center at Cyril King Airport, says with obvious pleasure this week. "Yesterday, we got the OK to build a customs and immigration facility here on the north side of the airport. This is unprecedented."

It has taken Hancock time and persistence to get the approval from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection service, now an agency within the Department of Homeland Security.

"Having to clear customs and immigration on the other side of the airport is a huge inconvenience," Hancock says. "It’s expensive and time-consuming for the airplane owners, there’s triple engine starts, which means time and money. People with $50 million aircraft don’t like the inconvenience. It’s just too much back and forth."

Hancock emphasized St. Thomas is in competition with other Caribbean islands.

"It’s to our advantage to make it as efficient as possible, to raise the island’s image in the global aviation world."

He says only about 5 percent of his business is local.

"The rest is from all over the world. Yacht Haven Grande has been a boon for us, with 50 slips for the mega-yachts. The marina is almost full now," Hancock says. "The passengers arrive and are whisked to the marina in a private limo service. This is the best season we’ve had since 2003."

The Jet Center is a haven for pilots and aircraft owners, the only full-service facility on the island. Services include customs pre-clearance, conference room, catering arrangements, concierge services, a pilot’s lounge with wireless Internet. Hancock and a reporter are actually sitting in the lounge when a pilot walks in and pulls up a chair to the computer and files his flight plan online.

Hancock says, "We have basically, anything they want."

That also includes Hancock’s on-site JetSet car rentals..

Hancock has been in the private and commercial aviation business for 35 years.

"I had 10 locations in the states," he says, "when we came to look at St. Thomas, I wanted to have one enterprise in one place. Susan liked the island and she stayed here while I wound up my businesses in the states."

The planned 1,700-square-foot, stand-alone facility will cost about $450,000, Hancock says. So far he has invested $2.6 million in the business, including a fuel storage unit completed in 2006. He still has to go through the government permitting process, he says, but he hope to have the new facility ready for the 2010 season.

The center has 34 employees – including counter and ramp agents, aircraft and auto mechanics — led by general manager Roy Romney, who himself has more than 15 years under his belt on St. Thomas, previously with Bohlke International Airways, which the Hancock’s purchased in 2002.

"We’re here 24-hours," says Hancock. "We’re here from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day, and on call after that. And we’re here for the medevac flights, which always seem to come at 2 a.m."

While Michael Hancock handles the nuts and bolts of the business, Susan handles marketing.

"And our social life," Hancock says with a laugh. "She knows everybody. I just ask where we’re going."

With more than 24 years in the industry, Susan Hancock speaks knowledgeably about the strategic importance of the Virgin Islands location.
"I go to the industry conventions to woo them, to sell our location," she says.

Pulling out a sheet of paper she draws a quick sketch of North and South America.

"This is crude, but I want to show you where we are," she says. "It’s just as easy to fly from South America and refuel and pay taxes here as in Miami, and it’s shorter to get to the East Coast."

The center took on a new role last month when it welcomed Carmen Partridge’s USVIHaitianRelief mission.

"It started off as a drop-off location for donations, and morphed into an ongoing operation," Hancock says. Donations pour in every day. They are stored, sorted and packaged in the center’s spacious hangar. Partridge has said the free Haiti flights will wind down by the end of February.

Though he is modest about his contribution, the center is an integral part of the mission, it’s base. Hancock, in fact, is looking into an air-taxi operation direct from St. Thomas to Haiti. American Airlines resumed Haiti service last week, but the flights are time consuming, requiring an overnight in Miami.

Now, for the fun side of things – both Hancocks lead the way outside to their personal aircraft, a brilliant white Cirrus SF20 single engine piston aircraft shimmering in the morning sun. With an almost equally brilliant smile, Michael Hancock says, "This is my present to myself."

He takes obvious enjoyment in describing his new toy.

"It has its own parachute, built in," he says. "It’s a ballistic recovery system deployed in an emergency to lower the entire aircraft to the ground safely." It’s a four-seat aircraft, but Hancock, an experienced pilot himself, says they always take along another pilot.

Susan beams as her husband describes his new toy.

"It’s great to be able to hop to St. Martin for lunch," she says. "If we get the time."

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