The hundreds of jets that take off and land every day at Van Nuys Airport pass a string of aging, nondescript hangars that line its perimeter.
Most of the unexceptional buildings, home to nearly 1,000 private and corporate jets, have sat unimproved for decades even as airport traffic accelerated and the general aviation industry modernized.
Now, some of those outdated and cramped facilities are about to be razed as one of the airport's charter jet providers builds a modern, chic terminal that stands to usher in a new era of construction at Van Nuys.
Elite Aviation LLC hopes to break ground soon on a $30-million-facility designed by a prominent architecture firm that would cater to the airport's predominantly wealthy clientele, including celebrities and business executives. The angular design is based on origami cranes, and is a far cry from the beige boxes that currently populate the airport.
"There isn't any other physical entity at Van Nuys Airport that comes close to what ours will look like," said Neil Shaw, executive vice president of Elite Aviation. "There hasn't been any real showcase (terminal) at the airport."
The project, which is still pending approval from the city and airport authority, would not only be among the airport's most upscale facilities but would be the first new jet terminal constructed in Van Nuys in almost two decades.
Meanwhile, several other high-profile airport tenants, including Maguire Aviation Inc., are redeveloping properties or making plans to upgrade and expand facilities. And within the next few weeks, officials hope to begin seeking developers for one of the airport's few remaining undeveloped parcels.
Indeed, Van Nuys is experiencing a development renaissance unlike anything seen in decades at the general aviation airport.
"What we're seeing is an industry that's being driven by the natural growth in the economy, and the increased demand in point-to-point aircraft travel and all of that creates fairly rapidly growing demand at Van Nuys Airport," said Robert Rodine, principal for the business consulting company Polaris Group, which has conducted economic assessments for airport owner Los Angeles World Airports, a city agency.
With about 400,000 takeoffs and landings each year, Van Nuys is the busiest general aviation airport in the world and a major hub for private air travel in Southern California.
The airport also is home to more than 100 businesses including aircraft managers, jet charter companies, fuel providers, caterers and more which generate some $1.3 billion in annual business revenue for the region.
And while the recent jump in fuel prices has raised costs of private jet travel and led to a dip in operations, experts believe the general aviation industry is primed for considerable growth in the coming years.
Business jet sales surged almost 30 percent last year outpacing all other types of small aircraft and that could grow even more this year, according to the General Aviation Manufacturers Association.
Private aircraft manufacturers shipped a record $21.9 billion in planes last year, a 16 percent jump over the previous year. A major factor is overseas orders, particularly from Russia, China and India.
Locally, Elite Aviation has experienced that growth. The privately held charter jet company has 20 planes in its fleet and expects to add as many as 15 jets over the next year. With its new terminal it would become a so-called fixed base operator, offering fuel service and jet maintenance for other jet owners.
"We have more business than we can even handle. We do a very strong international business. Our planes are flying all over the world literally every week," Shaw said.
The terminal also would offer more luxurious passenger accommodations, though the company already pampers its clientele with a full-time executive chef. "We treat them in a way that they want to be treated. Drinks, anything they want we bring it out on a silver tray," Shaw said.
The terminal was designed by Gensler, a San Francisco-based architectural firm that also designed 2000 Avenue of the Stars, the striking low-rise Century City office building that opened last year.
"(The terminal) is targeting the highest-end user," said terminal designer Terence Young, a senior associate at Gensler. "It's a private aircraft facility but designed to the same quality standards as an international terminal."
The project must still gain approval, but Gensler hopes to complete the 97,000-square-foot structure by the middle of 2009. The facility is far from the airport's only development.
Since a new airport master plan was approved two years ago, a number of airport tenants have begun to move ahead with long-delayed plans to expand their increasingly cramped facilities.
"There's been a pent-up demand for almost 10 years at Van Nuys where the occupancy at facilities are well in excess of 100 percent," said Tim Wray, chief operating officer of Maguire Aviation, a terminal operator at the airport. "There's a great demand for hangar space that wasn't here."
Maguire, which specializes in aviation real estate development, is looking to expand its Van Nuys facilities by developing 500,000 square feet of hangar and office space, nearly doubling its local footprint. The company has purchased several airport tenants in the past two years, and is finalizing the acquisition of one more.
Skytrails Aviation was in the process of developing nearly 200,000 square feet of hangar and office space when it was purchased by Maguire in February. If the acquisition goes through, Maguire would own three of the airport's five terminal operators amid the rising demand for private jet travel in the post 9/11 era.
"It's becoming the preferred way to travel for most businesses," Wray said. "These executives can travel when they want to where they want to without the hassles associated with the airlines."
Several other airport tenants are expanding as well. Million Air Interlink Inc., the nation's third-largest fixed base operator, is pursuing a $45 million development in Van Nuys. And the Air Group, a local air carrier recently acquired by Sentient Jet Inc. of Weymouth, Mass., broke ground last year on a nearly 100,000-square-foot facility.
Aircraft size also is becoming an issue for the airport as increasingly large jets gain in popularity.
The trend is driven both by the desire of fliers to travel farther without refueling and the new practice of fractional ownership, which has brought down the high cost of plane ownership.
A typical private jet costs between $5 million and $50 million, but fractional ownership allows customers to pay a portion of the cost in order to fly the plane for a set amount of time each month. "It's opened up the ability for people to use larger aircraft," said airport manager Selena Birk. "It has become easier to use general aviation."
To make room for larger jets, airport officials are currently seeking a developer to build a park for smaller propeller planes, where they can be consolidated on a 39-acre tract of land. Propeller plane pilots had feared they would be edged out of the increasingly congested airport.
Officials also are planning on seeking bids to develop a 5.8-acre parcel that will likely allow a current tenant to expand its facilities sometime next year. There has been some resistance to the project from local homeowners who object to airport expansion and the noise of additional aircraft, but it is not expected to disrupt the project.
Despite this flurry of activity, some users don't see any need to change. Al Mann, the billionaire entrepreneur and chief executive of Valencia-based biomedical company MannKind Corp., has kept his Gulfstream IV jet at Van Nuys since 2001 and he has no complaints. In fact, he said it ranks among the best of the 50 or so airports he has flown into.
"I'm very happy with Van Nuys Airport," Mann said. "It's one of the most outstanding airports in the country for general aviation."
For reprint and licensing requests for this article, CLICK HERE.