Priester Aviation Making History by Looking Ahead

By Dan Kidder, Aviation Business Journal

At the end of World War II, many pilots, both newly trained and seasoned veterans, began to see the potential for aviation in the United States. During the war years, transportation pioneers laid the foundation for a nation air transportation system, built up fleets of intercoastal aircraft, and took advantage of the vast number of military personnel who needed to be quickly transported around the globe.

At the end of World War I, veterans mainly returned to their homes, and few ventured very far from their front porches for more than a day's drive to the neighboring city or a two-day train ride to visit relatives. The development of multi-engine passenger aircraft capable of cross-country flight paved the way for those who once were homebodies to become national and international travelers.

Additionally, the advent of cross-country wireless radio towers and television fuels greater interest in what was happening elsewhere across the nation. Local radio news programs, which had long carried occasional brief wire stories from around the glove, now featured regular breaking news from far-flung communities. The airplane became a crucial element in gathering these stories.

Reporter once had to slog from town to town by train, car, or even horse or foot. But after WWII, these brave souls, like John Cameron Swayzie, could swoop from the clouds, land in a cornfield or on a backwoods dirt road, and grab footage of a story as it happened. George Priester often delivered the intrepid Swayzie to the scene of the action in his Stagger Wing biplane.

Rolling out the Runway for New Jets
Sensing these emerging trends, young George Priester purchased Palwaukee Airport from Parks College, which had previously used to train military pilots. He further developed the tract of land into what today is Palwaukee Airport in Wheeling, Ill., and founded George J. Priester Aviation. Early in the 1950s, George kept an eye on the emergence of jet technologies, which were first pioneered by Germany in the late "30s and came of age following the war. With uncanny foresight, he built a 5,000-foot runway to accommodate the new jets. He also built for other runways, paved taxi areas, and hanger, fueling and maintenance facilities. For years, Palwaukee was the busiest private airport in the world.

Like the fabled railroad from Italy to Austria that was built when no train could make the steep journey, Palwaukee's runway was built for the day when jet technology would be commonplace. "The thing that is so neat about this is that it was so calculated," said Andrew Priester Aviation. "They saw what was happening and they saw what was coming, so they really built the airport to support the growing aviation community"

This eye on the future helped build George J. Priester Aviation into one of the largest and most dominant air charter providers in the Midwest. In the 1980s and '90s, Priester Aviation underwent a major transformation. Charlie Priester, George's son, negotiated the sale of Palwaukee to the cities of Wheeling and Prospect Heights, George semi-retired, and Andrew left a budding career in teaching and school administration to join the family business in 1997.

"I was never pressured to join the business, but it just kept calling me," Andrew said. "Whenever we would get together as a family, I didn't want to know what was happening in everyone's life; I wanted to talk about the business."

Now in its third generation of Priester leadership, the company operates four locations around the Midwest. Based out of Chicagoland's Palwaukee, the company operates facilities in Minneapolis, Minn.; Milwaukee, Wis.; St. Louis, Mo. Once a full service operation, Priester sold its maintenance and FBO businesses to Signature Flight Support in 2001so it could focus on air charter.

"By percentage of flying, we are probably 70 percent Part 135, 30 percent (Part) 91, and the airplanes fly, depending on the plane, 50 to 80 hours per months," Andrew said.

While the founding of Priester Aviation was the work of George, the main growth of the company was experienced under Charlie's leadership. A Marine Corps crew chief, chief architect and planner of Palwaukee Airport's expansion, and much more make Charie's bio read like a textbook model in an aviation business school. Charlie Priester, age 67, holds a bachelor's degree in business administration from the University of Notre Dame, South Bend, Ind. and an honorary doctorate from St. Norbert College, DePere, Wis. As a maintenance chief in the U.S Marine Corps Reserve, he supervised a staff of 23 mechanics servicing and maintaining 12 aircraft and was awarded the Marine Air Reservist Award for Leadership. He is also a member of the aviation honorary organization Quiet Birdman and was inducted to the Illinois Aviation Hall of Fame in 1998.

But his bio doesn't reveal what Andrew said is the most important aspect of Charlie's character. "What's not in his bio is that he is one of the most benevolent people I have ever seen" Andrew said.
Charlie is actively involved with many local community groups and charitable organizations, including the University of Chicago Cancer Center and Dollars for Scholars, which works to provide scholarships for deserving students.

"I can tell you a particular situation where one of our pilots has a good friend who was literally on his death bed and needed to get up to the Mayo Clinic for treatment," Andrew said. "So my dad told the pilot to just take one of the planes and get him there. It's amazing that he never asks for anything in return."

Great People Boost Profits, Safety
While some might see this anecdote as a son's admiration for his father, it is also indicative of the general philosophy that drives Priester Aviation's success. "We have really great people," Andrew said. "Being where we are, both in location and in size, we get a really good pick of the crop when it comes to resumes. But we also aren't scared by someone who is younger but has great experience and talent. We try to get them, and then we train them. This makes our people intensely loyal to us and our clients."

This practice makes Priester not only one of the most profitable companies in the region, but also one of the safest. Priester regularly holds training programs, seminars, and classes for staff and was one of the first companies in the nation to implement the new NATA Safety 1st Air Charter Safety Management System (Charter SMS). (See article beginning on page 30.) The company also requires all employees, from line service technicians to pilots to schedulers, to complete a tailor-made customer service training program. Each employee, whether one of its 35 salaries staff or one of 801 contract pilots, must attend this training.

"This is mandatory training, whether it is the safety or procedures or even the customer service," Andrew said. "We are the cliche; poster children for outstanding service. Our clients know my dad or I are always on the other end of the phone, and many have our cell-phone number. If something every goes wrong, we can and will fix it."

That mentality is borne out by their telephone receptionist who simply forwards calls directly to Andrew without even inquiring who is calling a rarity in this age of voicemail and call screening.

Priester Aviation has been very active in the aviation community for many years. George Priester joined the National Air Transportation Association (NATA) early on, and his son Charlie has worked closely with NATA throughout the years.

As chairman of the NATA Board of Directors, Charlie was instrumental in developing and implementing the 100 Most Needed Airport" program. The program is directly responsible for successfully lobbying for a 40 percent increase in federal Airport Improvement Program funding for small airports. Charlie also helped start the Safety 1st program, which facilitates extensive safety training for aircraft ground handing employees. The program saves hundreds of thousands of dollars throughout all segments of the aviations industry. At the conclusion of his term chairman, Charlie was asked to remain as an active board member and facilitator of the Executive Compensation Committee, where he continues to serve today.

Tremendous Value in NATA Membership
"NATA membership is tremendously important and useful to us,' Said Andrew, who, in the name of full disclosure, serves as chairman of the NATA Air Charter Committee. 'It allows us as a company and as an industry to identify operational and compliance issues before they become bigger issues. We regularly receive updates from NATA about issues the FAA may be focusing on, and it allows us to examine ourselves internally to be sure we are compliant. This happens far before we get a friendly visit our friends at the local FSDO.'

Priester also participates in the NATA Workers Compensation program, and uses NATA Compliance Services for security screening on its staff.

"Another way (NATA membership) is great for us is that it creates a platform for us to network with other aviation professionals and debate regulatory issues that affect the industry,' Andrew said. 'If there is a common consensus in how things should be regulated, we have a voice- a collective voice- to go and sit down with the folks who make the regulations.'

He went on to explain that in today's environment many regulations for general aviation do not consider the economic impact from a small business prospective. 'We are, in many ways, still in the shadows of the big airlines, and the FAA and other don't always consider how a regulation is going to affect us,' he said. 'As individual companies, we are not going to have the resources or the clout to have these agencies listen to us and changes these regulations. But NATA has shown how effective we can be when we combine our resources and efforts in getting these agencies to hear us and consider our businesses.'

Andrew also said that the federal agencies are not the only threat facing general aviation. There is a growing trend among local communities to put pressure on the airport or in some cases shut the airport down. 'The root cause of these pressures is perceived inconvenience.' He said. 'Many people only see the negative impact of the airport. We need to make sure they see the positive economic impact of the local airport. We need to educate then with respect to the positive economic impact, the growth opportunities and the values local airports bring to their communities. We need to belong to community organizations like Rotary, formally and informally sing the praises of the local airport, and work with the community to get them to endorse this concept.'

As always, the leaders of Priester Aviation are looking ahead for the benefit of the company, the local community, and the aviation community as a whole.

For further information, to set up an interview, please contact
Paige Guzman at (847) 919-9460 or