Bo Andrews has been flying since he was a teenager, and he says the experience never gets old. Especially the takeoff, when the rumbling noise generated by the wheels accelerating along the runway suddenly stops and the plane begins that graceful rise toward the sky.
“It’s an amazing feeling, one that still carries with me today,” Andrews says. “When that jet leaves the runway and I feel it going up like an elevator, I still get a rush off it.”
Andrews currently is in the midst of another takeoff, though his seat for this one is primarily in an office instead of a cockpit. Andrews is the CEO of Southern Sky Aviation, a new company based at Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport that offers charter flights and a range of aircraft services not easy to find in Alabama.
What began in 2017 as simply a small charter outfit has quickly grown in both size and scope. Southern Sky provides aircraft management and maintenance, sells and repairs navigation and communication equipment, as well as interiors, helps broker the purchase of airplanes, provides hangar storage and offers flight training.
Along the way, Southern Sky has expanded from five employees in early 2017 to 64 (as of late 2018), and gross revenue quadrupled from 2017 to 2018, hitting $4 million by September, 2018.
“This last year has been great,” Andrews says. “Once we realized the opportunities that were out there, we said, ‘Let’s go for it. Let’s really make this thing move.’ We didn’t set any limitations. We decided we’d do whatever it takes, and things just really ramped up.”
Southern Sky originated out of a partnership between Andrews and Bill Gunnells, the founder and CEO of Birmingham-based RxBenefits, a prescription drug card company. Andrews was Gunnells’ chief pilot, and the two struck up a friendship during their many flights across the country.
They began to talk on those occasions about starting their own charter company one day. And when both men left RxBenefits in 2015, they got down to business.
“Bill said, ‘Let’s do this aviation thing we’ve talked about,’” Andrews recalls. “So we bought a jet and decided to start doing charters.”
After that quick decision, it took more than a year for Southern Sky to get off the ground, owing to the increase in government regulations that govern charter operations that go beyond a charter owner who flies his own plane.
“We spent 13 months working on that, without making any revenue,” Andrews says. “Everything has to be reported and approved. We had to go through every part of our jets and see what had to be changed. Then you have to report it to the FAA with the serial number of the part you’re changing. Then you have to get your pilots approved, with medical backgrounds and insurance requirements and recurring training every six months. It was harder than learning how to fly.”
Finally, in 2017, Southern Sky was ready to take flight. And as workers were hired to service the planes and make repairs, it became clear that maintenance was an area of opportunity. Word filtered out through the aviation community that a new company in Birmingham could service planes, and Andrews began receiving calls from owners throughout the Southeast.
“They had been taking their jets to Atlanta, Dallas, Nashville and Miami (for service), but those cities are more expensive,” Andrews says. “So people began contacting us. We started with one mechanic, and now we have 45. There’s just a general void in the market for this type of work.”
That void extends to charter service in general, at least in Alabama. According to the website aircharterguide.com, Southern Sky is one of only six charter operators in the state, compared to 27 in Georgia and 17 in Tennessee. So as flight demand increased, Southern Sky began hiring more pilots as well.
One of those pilots is Wes Williams, who, as the company’s aviation manager, handles all charter sales and logistics in addition to flying some of the flights. As the former operations manager for the Birmingham Airport Authority, Williams says he was amazed at the large number of corporate aviation customers coming through Birmingham.
“The sheer volume of private aviation that takes place in Birmingham is surprising for a city of this size,” Williams says. “There’s just a lot of corporate aircraft that comes through here.”
Southern Sky is starting to tap into that market for both flights and maintenance, including conducting service and repair work on commercial planes at the Birmingham airport. Williams says the key component for Southern Sky’s growth has been a commitment to quality customer relations.
“Everybody who works here has been an aviation customer at some point, and we know how we liked to be treated,” Williams says. “So we try to do that with our customers, doorstep to doorstep. There’s an attitude of intensive customer service throughout the company.”
Or as Andrews puts it, “It may sound hokey, but I really believe that if you treat people right, you’ll do well.”
Michele Kong, a pediatrician with UAB and Children’s of Alabama, has experienced that service firsthand. Kong is the co-founder of the nonprofit organization KultureCity, which works for greater inclusion and accessibility for individuals with autism and other special needs. In addition to holding the annual KultureBall fundraiser inside Southern Sky’s 67,000 square feet of hangar space in 2018, Kong says Andrews helped coordinate six charter flights to bring in donors from New York and Boston.
“Bo is someone who is very easy to work with,” Kong says. “He made everything really simple and efficient. He’s a personable guy, and it really comes across that he cares for people and is willing to work with you.”
It is an approach that appears to be paying off, based on Southern Sky’s rapid increase in business and services. Andrews says he expects the company to be “twice as big by this time next year.” The firm expanded into Atlanta in February, offering charter and maintenance services there.
Add it all up, and there is only one way for this lifelong pilot to describe his company’s potential: “The sky’s the limit.”
Cary Estes and Cary Norton are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Both are based in Birmingham.