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"Mississippi FBO survives lean times"



Sunday, July 15, 2001

Airport operator survives lean times
By RICHARD MEEK
THE BILOXI (MS) SUN HERALD


KILN - Gene Phillips has seen the best and the worst of times during his
13-year run as the fixed base operator at Stennis International Airport.

He recalls fondly the early 1990s, when Casino Magic and the Jubilee Casino
were flying in as many as 60 charter flights a month. Cash was flowing as
quickly as one could fill up a 727.

In 1994, Phillips grossed $1 million in revenue, his best year ever.

"We all lived pretty good then," Phillips said. "We were pumping 150,000
gallons of fuel a month."

By the summer of 1995, however, the Jubilee Casino was on its way to
Greenwood and the charter service used by Casino Magic was grounded. The
pumps stopped flowing and so did the money.

The day after the Casino Magic grounding, Phillips laid off 16 employees,
leaving himself and a skeleton crew to staff the repair business full time.

Since then, it has been the worst of times at Phillips Aviation. Now, he
considers himself fortunate if he pumps 150,000 gallons of gas in a year.
The only two full-time employees are him and his son.

"We had two real good years," Phillips said. "Today, we're not making any
money. It's hardly enough to make it a business."

Phillips came to Stennis in December 1988 from Diamondhead, where he had
operated an aircraft repair business for four and a half years. It was the
lure of the bigger planes and potentially larger revenue that attracted him
to Stennis.

"It made sense," he said. "Really, all we could do at Diamondhead was to
work on small airplanes. Also, I only had a one-year contract."

Phillips struggled in the early years, rode the golden wave of the casino
charter business, and has settled back into the familiar tussle of the lean
time. But he's a survivor, with an extremely loyal following among small
aircraft owners.

Not only has Phillips survived the difficult economic times, he also endured
an acrimonious relationship with former airport director Bill Stovall, who
didn't hide the fact that he wanted to oust Phillips. It was during
Stovall's tenure that Phillips was forced to move from his hangar adjacent
to the terminal to a remote location on the north side of the airfield.

A new FBO opened on the airfield, but during the past year ceased operation
amid scandals that sent one partner to jail.

On May 1, Phillips signed a three-year contract with the Hancock County Port
and Harbor Commission and relocated adjacent to his previous hangar.

"When my three years are up, I'll try to get three more," said Phillips.
"I'll play it along one contract at a time."

If business should pick up at the airport, Phillips said he expects
officials to lure another FBO on site and move him to a less desirable
location.

"That's just one of those things," he said.

But he knows he'll survive. He's done it for the last 13 years.

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