A Conversation with Coy Comontofski, President of LIFT Aviation Company
What CEO doesn’t dread the time-consuming routine of commercial air travel, made especially troublesome in the era of COVID-19? The obvious solution is flying private, but the prospect of owning or leasing a private aircraft can be daunting. Coy Comontofski and LIFT Aviation Company are on a mission to change that.
We talked to Comontofski, a lifelong flying fanatic, about what CEOs should consider when contemplating leasing, buying, or selling a private aircraft—and about how the pandemic is affecting the aviation industry at large.
Texas CEO: When you were a kid, did you know you wanted to be in aviation?
Coy: I knew I wanted to be a pilot when I was three years old. My grandfather—to me he was
“Papa C”—was a decorated World War II pilot who flew supply and troop support missions over “the Hump” [a treacherous path over the Himalayas]. After the war and the Berlin airlift, he worked as a test pilot refurbishing surplus aircraft into civilian and commercial use, and that’s when the airline industry started really taking off. Later, he worked as a corporate pilot for Jim’s Restaurants, which was booming at that time in Texas. This was back in the early 1980s.
At three years old, Papa C let me “copilot” his Commander 690 twin turboprop airplane with him on a trip from Houston to San Antonio. I remember it like it was yesterday—the smell of the jet fuel, the sounds, not being able to see over the dash in the cockpit, everything. I loved it instantly and flew with him every time I had the opportunity until he retired.
While attending The University of Texas, I worked as a DJ on Sixth Street, and made a pretty good living for a college kid. I still had a love of aviation, and I used the extra money from DJing to learn to fly at the Robert Mueller Airport. I paid $38 an hour, with fuel, to train in a Cessna 152; the instructor was only $20 an hour. I joined the University Flying Club and earned my pilot’s license at the age of 19. Upon graduating from UT with a B.S. in Economics, I decided that my path forward would be to combine my studies with my passion for flying.
I had a few different options at that point. I could’ve chosen the route of becoming a commercial airline pilot, but I’m pretty free-spirited and didn’t necessarily want to be in a large corporate setting. I have a lot of respect for airline pilots, but it is not my cup of tea. They fly similar routes on a day-to-day basis, and many of the pilots I had the opportunity to visit with told me it can become monotonous. What appealed to me a lot more was getting into the aviation business itself.
Determined to begin my adventure, I began calling the marketing and sales departments of all the big aircraft manufacturers: Cessna, Commander, Mooney, Beechcraft, you name it. If they would take my call, I’d tell them, “Look, I’m a 22-year-old pilot with a degree focused on economics and business—how do I get into aircraft sales with your organization?” They all had a similar response: Keep flying as much as you possibly can, get as many hours as possible, and learn to sell to a high-end clientele.
Texas CEO: What are those benchmarks like? How many hours of flying does a beginner have, and so on?
Coy: You can earn your private pilot certificate in as little as 40 hours, though I’d bet the national average is closer to 60 hours. The private certificate allows you to fly in fair weather; it’s commonly known as your “license to learn.” It can take another 50 to 60 hours for the instrument rating, which allows for flying through visible moisture, clouds. At 250 hours a pilot can earn a commercial rating and then, finally, begin earning a wage while flying. At 500 hours, in the professional pilot world you’re still green, and almost unmarketable for a professional flying position. In my opintion, pilots really become marketable to work as a commercial pilot around 750 to 1,000 hours. This would be as a contract pilot or copilot.
Texas CEO: How many hours do you have now?
I don’t have my logbook with me today, but I have somewhere between 5,500 and 5,600 hours.
Texas CEO: That’s like a doctorate in flying. Let’s go back to your first job. How’d you get a foot in the door of the industry?
Coy: I focused on the advice I received from those aircraft manufacturers. I had the degree and my pilot’s license; now I needed experience—both in flying and in selling high-dollar assets to high-net worth individuals. A friend of mine worked for a local Ford dealership, and he gave me a shot by hiring me. By my third month, I had sold 30 cars and trucks in 31 days and made my first big paycheck. That was an “aha” moment—I saw that I could do well financially in that business. Before long, I was in charge of the entire Internet department. I found a way to work efficiently selling cars as a “non-car-salesman-like car salesman”—as I dubbed myself. I would listen to people’s needs and simply align those needs to features and benefits. It’s a skill I use to this day.
In my mid-20s, the allure of the car-dealership paychecks sidetracked me for a while, but I kept flying as a hobby, averaging 25-50 hours a year. Next, I took a position with D. R. Horton as a mortgage broker. I loved that idea because I would gain the experience financing those large-ticket items and gain exposure to high-net-worth people. My region was Hawaii and the Northeast, where property values were much higher. It was the logical next step. I did really well in the mortgage industry, but again, it wasn’t the dream. This was around 2007, and all signs were showing that the bubble was about to burst in that industry. And did it ever!
So, once again, I used the money I was making to fund my dream of becoming an aviation professional. When I felt the squeeze in the mortgage industry, I earned the instrument rating, commercial rating, flight instructor, instrument instructor, and my multi-engine instructor certificates. Once I had those certifications, I quit the corporate world and started instructing as my full-time job. Overnight, I went from earning well into the six-figures to earning less than $18,000 a year before taxes. Mind you, this is flying about 100 hours a month—which is a lot of flying. It was a grueling workload, talking and teaching concepts all day, trying to mentor students to make good decisions, and keeping myself and the students safe in the process. I began attending aviation trade shows with a manila envelope full of resumes. I’d hand them out to anybody I could and let them know that Coy Comontofski was going to get a job in aviation come hell or high water.
Finally, in 2009, I was hired as the Austin representative of a Dallas-based fractional aircraft sales and management company. I began flying airplane owners, learning how to give that white-glove treatment to high-net-worth, sometimes semi-famous people in Cirrus SR22s. It’s an intimate setting, flying folks in a small aircraft like the Cirrus. You can hear the passengers over the headset, so you might as well talk to them. I learned a lot about their likes and dislikes, and I wanted to create something big based on their feedback. For that company, I did everything from selling and marketing to managing aircraft maintenance to scrubbing bugs off the leading edges of the wings and windshield. Because this was my dream, I put my heart and soul into trying to make the company better, but it became apparent I had hit a ceiling in growing someone else’s company. By February of 2013, I was ready to create my own, and LIFT Aviation Company was born.
Texas CEO: Can you explain exactly what LIFT does?
LIFT is an aircraft management company and sales/leasing broker.
As an aircraft management company, we’re essentially a “property manager” for airplanes. We coordinate the efforts for airworthiness and FAA compliance, making sure discrepancies—what we call “squawks” in the industry—are corrected. Because safety is our top priority, we’ve been accident-free since our inception—no scuffs whatsoever with our management. We also coordinate everything from database updates to washing and staging the aircraft between flights to making sure it’s stocked with snacks and drinks. If you peeked into one of the airplanes we manage, it’s always staged the same, with a high standard level of maintenance and readiness.
For aircraft owners, LIFT can provide a pilot solution, and I personally fly many of our owners in various aircraft ranging from Cirrus up to the jets. Once it was dream, but now is a reality, and this is one of the best parts of my job. Earning a wage to provide a pilot service to aircraft owners, at the level they expect, just feels incredible every time. Now, LIFT can only provide pilot services to owners using their own planes; we cannot and will not provide pilot services when assisting owners who dry-lease their aircraft.
Texas CEO: What does it mean to dry-lease an aircraft?
“Dry leasing” is when an owner leases the aircraft directly to another user without a crew. “Dry,” in legal terms, has nothing to do with fuel; owners or managers must not provide the pilot or flight crew. Under a dry lease arrangement, the owner of the aircraft gives up their operational control, and the user, or lessee, becomes the direct operator. This means the lessee is responsible for supplying and coordinating directly with their pilot, or if they meet the highest level of insurance requirements, possibly even flying the aircraft themselves.
The topic of dry leasing can be touchy, as there are cases where owners and their management companies do not fully understand how to accomplish an FAA-conforming dry-lease scenario. At LIFT, we know the pitfalls and have deep legal guidance on this topic from one of the best aviation law firms in the country, so we specialize in assisting owners and users with a conforming dry-lease structure.
Dry leasing can be compared to the agreement when renting a car, where the user, whether the driver or not, assumes the responsibility and liability of operating the car while that renter has access to it. If the rental car company forced a professional driver on that user, how would the user be responsible? They wouldn’t. The same holds true with owners dry leasing to users. The users ultimately become the operator of the aircraft. Dry leasing aircraft isn’t as simple as chartering. The responsibility of a charter user is simply paying the fee and showing up to the flight. With a lease scenario, the lessee or operator must understand their responsibilities and liabilities. This includes finding and securing their own pilot, as well as agreeing who has certain maintenance and airworthiness responsibilities, along with making certain the user shares protections under the owner’s insurance policy, and if those limitations are adequate.
While it is slightly more tedious on the user’s and the owner’s parts, LIFT specializes in educating all parties as to how to legally conform to a dry-lease structure. With this understanding by the user comes the freedom of temporarily accessing aircraft, which they don’t own, but operating the aircraft as if they did.
Texas CEO: Lots of CEOs might be intimidated by the time and cost that go into owning an aircraft, even if they like the idea of getting around faster and easier. What would you say to those CEOs?
The real advantage of owning an aircraft—or chartering or leasing one for that matter—is that they are essentially time machines. People save so much time flying private, and if they value that time at more than the cost of the aircraft, then in a sense they’re making money. The time saved can really add to your quality of life. That said, most will have a hard time getting rich owning an airplane as an investment.
Texas CEO: It’s a depreciating asset.
That’s right. Aircraft are expensive to own and operate and rarely gain in value. But we specialize in reducing the cost of aircraft ownership—whether through partnerships that allow for a division of costs, leasing back to charter operator introductions, or entering into a dry lease scenarios. As an owner using LIFT aircraft management, you can also leverage LIFT’s relationships with insurance providers, maintenance specialists, hangars, FBOs, fuel discounts, avionics companies, A&P [airframe and powerplant] shops, paint shops, engine mechanics, and other aviation-specific vendors.
We’re also a full-service aircraft sales broker. If you have an airplane you want me to sell, I’ll sell it. If you are thinking of an airplane to buy, I will find the right one for you. The aircraft we represent on a recurring basis include Cirrus, Piper Meridians, Daher-Socata TBMs, Cessna Conquests, Pilatus, Beechcraft King Airs, and Cessna Citations.
I will say this to anyone looking to buy or sell an airplane: use a broker! Sophisticated, high-net worth individuals often found success because they are extremely competent in what they do, but this can cause a misleading thought process and often trick some to buying or selling an aircraft on their own. Time is money, and my recommendation is to hire a seasoned aviation professional to do what they do with efficiency so the buyer or seller can continue to do what they do best.
It’s also a bit like buying a house, except there are even more maintenance issues, where most are probably not going to understand them: “The prop-hub is showing signs of weakness,” “the outflow valve is intermittent holding cabin pressure,” “the bleed-air this” and “the elevator trim actuator that.” You want a good broker who can translate those issues into dollars and time, and project what it’s going to cost you in the future. You might hop on the Internet and find a jet for $200,000 and think, “Hey, I’m just going to go buy myself a jet!” Unfortunately, you may have just bought yourself a $200,000 headache that’s going to cost you $300,000 a year just to keep running—and that’s before you fly it, with the cost of gas and pilots.
Texas CEO: If I’m looking to buy an airplane, what other things should I look for in a broker?
Coy: As I mentioned, use a broker who knows the type of airplane you’re looking for—and who will be honest if they don’t. If someone came to me and said they wanted to buy a Gulfstream, I’d say, “This type is not our specialty, but I would be happy to reach out to a colleague who deals in Gulfstreams daily.” If they said they wanted to buy a King Air 350 or a Citation CJ3, I’d be happy to lead the effort and feel confident the buyer would enjoy the process.
Second, a broker should listen to your needs and try to find you an airplane that’s right for you. A common question in the aircraft acquisitions business is, “What’s your 80–90 percent mission?” If 80 percent of the time you need to get around Texas with two to three people and you want to be able to fly above most weather and you want to fly in the most efficient airplane possible, I’m already thinking: single-engine turboprop. But then I say “single-engine turboprop” and you respond with, “Nope, my spouse, or insurance policy, won’t have it. I need two engines.” Well, now I’m shifting over into a twin-engine turboprop. You say, “Well, prop really isn’t my style, I really like a jet.” Now I can talk you through different jet options, how it’s going to burn a little bit more gas just getting around Texas but can have similar efficiency to, if not better than, turboprops—on longer flights. I can then educate you certain jets are incredibly efficient, where parts are readily available, we know of vast resources to work on the aircraft maintenance, and may even have single-pilot capability. Listening to the customer’s needs first, giving feedback, hearing the customer’s response, and whittling down to a certain type of aircraft—that’s a skill a good broker has. Be wary: Some brokers have aircraft in inventory, and if they are trying to sell you something just because they’ve got it, they don’t have your best interests in mind.
Finally, interview your broker. You want to be comfortable with them, understand what their fees are up front, and get to know them as a person. Can they help with finding and interviewing pilots, and with insurance, management solutions, a hangar, and so on? Buying or selling an airplane is a journey. Imagine traveling with a new friend in a two-seat car on a long road trip, by the time you get to your destination you will likely know that person pretty well. Buying an airplane is like that. If you’re not aligning in the beginning of a sales or acquisitions process, there is a high likelihood it will be pretty bruisy all the way through the process.
Texas CEO: How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected LIFT’s business? I imagine fewer people have been able to travel, whether they own their own plane or are dry leasing.
Once the pandemic hit, we initially saw a rapid pickup in demand from owners and lessee/operators. People needed to move college students home, get elderly people to safer places, or return from vacations and second homes. But at the same time business meetings fell almost to zero immediately, and other types of travel fell off fast. We do have several owners involved in the relief efforts, mostly federal and state government contractors, and they have been utilizing the aircraft. But otherwise, with the United States and every country essentially shut down for a while, there’s been nowhere to travel. A lot of people have COVID cabin fever, but if there had not been many places to travel, what good is a travel tool?
That meant that as an aircraft manager, we had to figure out how to maintain a group of aircraft with no owner/operator demand for a while. We also took care of upcoming scheduled maintenance items during the downtime. We created a regimen of exercising the aircraft for the owners, so the planes aren’t sitting stagnant. Otherwise it would be like putting a car on blocks in your garage. That would not be a healthy car.
We’re also following the CDC guidelines on sterilizing and cleaning the interiors with approved products. We’ve removed all headsets from our aircraft, as this has the potential to transmit the virus, so pilots now bring their own. It’s not our airplane, and we are not the operator of the aircraft, but we do encourage people to wear masks. We also have a form notifying of our disinfecting methods, so owners and operators know we’re doing everything we can to mitigate the risk of spreading the disease.
Texas CEO: When do you expect demand to return?
We’re already seeing it. In recent weeks, folks have been starting to think about traveling to Colorado, flying out to one of the islands opening in the Caribbean, maybe making a trip for certain business meetings, playing catch-up. And as we continue to come out of the initial stages, we anticipate a significant uptick in our demand, from our owners and lessee/operators.
Part of that will be due to airlines canceling routes. It’s a major nuisance to book a commercial flight right now, especially for same-day business meetings. For example, there used to be a nonstop from Austin to Fort Lauderdale in the morning and a nonstop from Fort Lauderdale back to Austin that evening. And if you need to make a business meeting in a day on an airliner, you could. Now routes like that don’t exist. You’re forced to stay overnight. With owning or having access to a private aircraft, it’s easier to fly direct to your destination.
As more people seek alternative solutions to air travel, we’ll be assisting many with acquisitions, sales, upgrades, and educating many folks on how to gain access to aircraft through a conforming dry lease system— the right way.
Texas CEO: Last question. How do you think the big airlines are going to come out of the pandemic?
Coy: I feel for the airlines. I use them on a regular basis when evaluating aircraft for sale. There’s a fear factor of sitting in a tube of 80 to 200 other people in a time like this, and that’s clearly driven demand down. I think it’ll take at least a year to a year and a half before the airlines start to feel even close to what they were back in February. Naturally, I believe CEOs will increase seeking out alternatives, whether it be chartering or jet cards or potentially owning their own aircraft, or educating themselves on how to dry lease appropriately from owners.
I do believe the world of private aviation will continue to grow, regardless of the pandemic. Time is money. Less time traveling means better quality of life for family and employees. Traveling with no strangers in smaller plane will likely cause less angst. For people who are looking to fly private with maximum efficiency and comfort—and that includes a lot of executives, of course—LIFT Aviation Company connects them with some of the best aviation solutions they can get today.