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Published: Monday, 10/17/2005

Customers' ads fly high with banner company

BY JON CHAVEZ
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER
An Air America Aerial Ads Inc. pilot flies over the Glass Bowl at the University of Toledo on Oct. 8. An Air America Aerial Ads Inc. pilot flies over the Glass Bowl at the University of Toledo on Oct. 8.
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Call Jim Miller unusual, but he won't drive anywhere if he can fly there instead - preferably with himself behind the yoke.

"Some people like golf or watching football on TV as a way to relax. My thing is being up in an airplane, always has been," said the 34-year-old Lake Township resident.

It's good that he loves to fly, because as the owner of Air America Aerial Ads Inc., one of the largest aerial banner-towing services in the Great Lakes, he spends a lot of time in the air.

Using Toledo Metcalf Field as its base, flying at speeds of 50 to 60 mph and altitudes between 1,000 and 2,000 feet, the company's six single-engine planes fly in and out of airfields in seven states within a 300 mile of Toledo. The planes tow 150-foot long messages, detailing businesses, events, anniversaries, birthdays, or even marriage proposals.

The company will have $500,000 in sales in 2005 and has 12 employees, and six planes, the owner said.

Steve Grabke, owner of Steve Grabke's Body Shop in Holland, has used Air America for eight years to promote his firm at University of Toledo football games.

"The plane gets me noticed and I'm there at every major ball game," he said.

"Everybody listens to the radio. But it's not everyday you see an airplane towing a big 30-foot banner with your name on it. That sticks with you," Mr. Grabke said.

Company owner Jim Miller connects banner hooks to the back of his plane at Metcalf Field in Walbridge, Ohio, as he prepares for UT flyovers. Company owner Jim Miller connects banner hooks to the back of his plane at Metcalf Field in Walbridge, Ohio, as he prepares for UT flyovers.
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Air America began in 1996 after the closing of Drake Aerial Enterprises, a family-owned business started in 1987 by Mr. Miller's father, who had been a mechanic in the U.S. Air Force.

Growing up in Bedford Township, Mr. Miller was a self-described "airport bum," hanging out at Toledo Suburban Airport in Ottawa Lake, Mich. He flew solo at 16, became a pilot at 17, and has over 11,000 hours in the air since.

With his wife Chryl Kimberly managing the ground crew, Mr.

Miller grew Air America prior to Sept. 11, 2001, into a firm with $700,000 in annual sales, 30 employees, and a fleet of 14 planes .

The company flew about 1,000 jobs from March to August, and 1,000 from September to December to overfly football, baseball, auto racing, and other sporting events. It received a minimum $350 for eight fly-bys.

Then the Sept. 11 attacks grounded Air America for months, nearly bankrupting it.

The firm rebounded in 2002 but then the National Football League, Major League Baseball, NCAA football, and NASCAR all asked for and got permanent federal rules creating three-mile no-fly zones an hour before through an hour after events with more than 30,000 people.

Mr. Miller said the rule targets only aircraft flying below 3,000 feet - in effect, banner-towers. The rule hurt Air America, but did not kill it. The firm still flies around stadiums prior to and after the one-hour limits.

Long term, Air America may soar even higher financially.

Looking to regain his lost revenue, in 2003 Mr. Miller wondered if advertisers in large cities might want a new way to reach commuters stuck in traffic jams.

He contacted auto dealers, restaurants, and nightclubs in Detroit about towing banners along jammed roads at rush hour. To his surprise, they loved the idea. Instead of getting $600 for one-time jobs, in 2004 Air America got $10,000 contracts to fly multiple times a week over freeways at rush hour in Detroit, Cleveland, and Columbus. Soon, it will do so in Chicago.

"People may not go to a ball game, but everybody goes to work," he said.

The idea has changed Air America from a seasonal to a year-round business. "It's heartbreaking because it was almost like a military operation before," he said. "But long term, this is a much more stable thing for us."

Small Business Profile is a weekly feature on local companies. To be considered, send information about your company to Small Business Profiles, Business News, The Blade, P.O. Box 921, Toledo, Ohio 43697-0921.

Contact Jon Chavez at: jchavez@theblade.com or 419-724-6128.



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