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HIGH FLIERS: For Medford Air Service, a bigger hangar, fancy lobby, and collaboration with a competitor add up to a new approach to doing business

Medford Air Service has gone through immense philosophical and physical changes in the 22 months since Ron and Dee Coffman acquired the company.

The fixed-base operator, or FBO, on the northwest corner of Rogue Valley International-Medford Airport combines the elegance of upscale department stores with the largest hangar on the field.

The most unusual facet of the business, however, is Medford Air's new relationship with Superior Air Charter, in which the two independently owned companies share managers and facilities. Our vision is to raise the level here to a full-service FBO, Ron Coffman says. We want people to feel at home, whether they're local or traveling through.

Companies such as Medford Air sell services, maintenance, fuel, flight instruction and aircraft as well as offering charter flights.

Coffman, 56, was disappointed to see both the declining physical condition and lack of vitality in FBOs as he flew a biplane from Georgia to Medford recently, stopping every two hours to refuel.

FBOs across the nation are falling, he says. They are just dying away. Their attitudes, service and condition of their facilities are deteriorating. Here in Medford, we're trying to not let that happen.

In the new collaboration between Medford Air and Superior Air, Medford Air's part of the equation includes hangars, fueling and an executive terminal and its amenities. Superior Air provides air charter service, maintenance, aircraft management, pilot services and flight instruction. Each company has 10 employees.

Within a few months after taking over Medford Air, the Coffmans saw both the potential and challenges the company faced.

I realized that Medford Air grew beyond what my wife had intended it to do, he says. In order to stay functional as an FBO it was going to require a background I didn't have. I couldn't get the experience fast enough. I saw that Superior was in a position to utilize some of the excess facilities I had and thought it would make a good match.

He began meeting with Superior Air General Manager Joe Keith, a 42-year-old former Navy pilot who has been with Superior Air since September 1999. The complementing qualities and ability to grow both businesses became apparent.

We have good teams on both sides, says Keith. We have good dialogue and we want to make it fair for both owners. Growing pains, because people resist change, are natural. We're turning the corner from being a mom-and-pop operation to a world-class organization without losing our hometown feel.

Keith became general manager and Billy O'Quinn became operations manager for both companies on Jan. 1.

Their primary fixed-base competitor is Jet Center of Medford, which has dominated fuel sales and had well over 80 percent of the market in 2002.

Like Medford Air, we were going to build another facility and put an FBO in, Keith says. We realized that there's not enough room at this airport for three (FBOs). We were trying to find a way we could work together as a team and provide all the services. There are eight basic FBO services and you have to provide most of them or you can't compete.

He says in the next six months Superior will begin a full-blown repair center. That will position it to capture more of the California aviation market because Southern Oregon has lower overhead and no sales tax on parts.

Our shop rate can be &

36;10 to &

36;15 lower an hour and our margins are just the same as a shop just across the (California) border, Keith says.

Superior Air,owned by Medford businessman John Duke, has flown passengers for more than 11 years. The company has added an eight-passenger Learjet 35 that travels up to 500 mph and has an extended range of 1,800 miles.

Medford Air Service's roots go back to 1928, when it was founded by Tom Culbertson, who was Medford's second airport manager. He sold the business in 1951 to Kenneth Owen, who turned over operations to his sons in 1995.

The business has at various times fueled planes, trained pilots, performed maintenance and sprayed crops in its seven-plus decades.

The Coffmans considered building a hangar near one they owned, but steep system development charges (fees paid to local government to cover the costs of growth) convinced them to buy an existing building. Connie Owen, Kenneth's widow, was ready to sell.

It was cheaper for us to buy this facility than to build next door, Ron Coffman says.

The makeover began two years ago and will take another six months. The Coffmans declined to specify exact project costs, but say it's in the seven-figure range.

Entering the 1940s-style floor-to-ceiling-glass entrance, visitors are treated to a collection of historical aviation photos, including a shot of Amelia Earhart high above San Francisco mounted along a curving staircase that provides extraordinary views of the airport and the Rogue Valley.

Aviators have access to a state-of-the-art flight planning station and weather terminal.

The affixed hangar accounts for about 75 percent of the 25,000-square-foot facility and was expanded to house Global Express or Gulf Stream V's as well as the largest commercial turbo-prop planes flown into Medford. When a 40-passenger Horizon Air DeHavilland Dash 8 struck a flock of geese on Jan. 8, breaking cockpit windows and damaging the bulkhead, the plane was stored at Medford Air's hangar.

Typical refueling takes 10 to 15 minutes, with small Cessnas consuming 22 gallons of fuel, says O'Quinn, while the largest customers carry up to 8,000 gallons.

If fliers are stranded because of mechanical or other difficulties, they can be ferried to their destination while repairs are done. Such was the case recently when a plane was grounded because of electrical difficulties and the passengers were flown on to Boise.

The Coffmans moved to the Rogue Valley in 1994. Ron Coffman is an engineer who retired from Qualcomm, the San Diego-based telecommunications company. Dee Coffman, 50, is a former Qualcomm chief financial officer and a member of the company's board of directors.

The Coffmans also have plans for the Boeing KC-97 Stratofreighter sitting just beyond Medford Air's parking lot.

We have offered to pay for part of the area out there for community use and functions, Ron Coffman says. Perhaps we can bring in other static aviation equipment along with picnic tables for gatherings.

Ultimately, the goal is encouraging youngsters to dream about aviation, which is struggling amidst ever-increasing regulations that have put many FBOs out of business.

We want to bring the young pilots and young mechanics along, Keith says. When the kids are working out on the line, we're looking for those diamonds in the rough that we can grow into managers, mechanics and pilots.

After extending an existing hangar, Medford Air Service now has the Medford airport's largest storage and maintenance area for planes. Mail Tribune / Jim Craven - Mail Tribune Jim Craven