“This is without doubt the blackest day in the history of Brussels Airport. ”
LR Services' Patti Squire
The president of a Pennsylvania charter company speaks her mind on women in the workplace, aviation safety auditors and more.
Few women own and run aircraft charter and management companies. How Patti Squire joined their ranks is a story of luck, family, tragedy, good business sense, employee loyalty and perseverance.
She told us that story recently in the offices of LR Services, a Part 135 charter operator that manages a Beechjet 400 and four Learjets (a 28, a 31, a 35 and a 55) at Lehigh Valley International Airport in Allentown, Pennsylvania. Squire is president and majority owner of the company, which has been in operation for more than 30 years and has 15 full-time and three part-time employees. Her views on charter brokers, jet cards and businesses that provide safety ratings for a price are, well, priceless.
How did you become involved with LR Services?
Mike Bailey, my former husband, was a CPA and a pilot. He flew part-time for LR Services, which was based at Morristown Airport in New Jersey at that time. LR managed one airplane, a Learjet 35. When the owner of LR Services wanted to retire, Mike and another pilot bought the company, splitting it 50/50. This was in 1992. They continued to manage the owner’s airplane and later got another.
Were you involved in the company then?
I did everything in the office, except accounting and taxes. I did it without pay, just to be part of it. Nothing was computerized. I used a map on the wall with a string to quote trips. But one day I thought, “This is kind of silly. I really should be either paid or a partner.” The other partner wasn’t going to give up any of his 50 percent share, so Mike let me buy half of his.
And how did you become the primary owner?
Mike viewed the business as a moneymaking hobby. It was good enough to support us and his hobbies. He liked skydiving and traveling. When the partner decided he wanted to grow, he split off and started his own company. Then I became a 50 percent owner. After Mike and I divorced, we remained business partners. Then Mike died in a skydiving accident in 2002.
So you had some decisions to make.
I had to decide whether I wanted to continue the business and try to make it work or bail. Mike and I each had life insurance policies naming the other as beneficiary, so I could have walked away.
Why didn’t you?
There were people who told me I couldn’t [run the business], because I am not a pilot and I am not male. Really, it was as simple as that.
Who were these people? Your employees?
No, not employees. They were actually more supportive than I could have asked for. No, it was the ex-partner and other people in the industry. By then I had really grown to love what I was doing. I mean, it’s not boring—not your 9-to-5 job—and I had sacrificed a lot already. With on-demand chartering you don’t get a holiday, or uninterrupted meals with your family or uninterrupted time while helping a child with homework. And I am pretty stubborn.
How would you describe LR Services?
We put a lot of emphasis on stability and quality of life—not just for the principals, but the entire company. By “stability” I mean measured growth. I do not want to jump in over my head and do too much too fast. Regarding quality of life, if anybody has an important family event, we try to schedule around it. One of our pilots is running for Congress, so we try to be very flexible, so he can do what he needs to do for that. We like making money, but you can have all the money in the world and have a terrible life. We don’t want that.
How does being a woman affect your dealings with clients, vendors and employees in what is primarily a male-dominated industry?
I have been to a lot of aviation-specific seminars, gatherings and regional meetings [hosted by the National Business Aviation Association and National Air Transportation Association]. A female wallflower would just shrivel up and die. When these guys get together at these meetings, they are kings of the world. So yeah, if I were not as strong as I am, it would be much more difficult. There are people who won’t give me the time of day because I am not like them.
You’re referring to men?
Men. It is always tough. Being a woman in this industry has its disadvantages.
What are the disadvantages?
You are not taken seriously. I will say something at a roundtable meeting and it will not get acknowledged. Then two seconds later a man will say the exact thing that I just said, and someone else replies, “Oh, that is a great idea.” Well, I thought it was a great idea when I said it. Things like that. It is not a big deal, but it stings. What are you going to do? It doesn’t stop me.
And I am sure we have lost aircraft management contracts against male salesmen. I can’t win against a male salesman, have never done it. I need a male to go head-to-head with another male.
How could a person new to air charter find a good operator or management company?
Ask around. Call the FAA Flight Standards District Office at your airport and ask for names of certified operators. We know the operators we work with. We have our go-to people whom we will call first to see what aircraft they have available, and there are some operators we will not do business with. It really is a small industry.
How does LR Services get most of its charter flights?
Mainly from charter brokers. We also get flights from other charter operators and from our regular customers.
What has been your experience with charter brokers?
Some are good, some are not. Even the major broker firms have individuals working for them who don’t know one airplane from another. Charter customers would be so much better off just going to an operator. If someone calls us and we do not have the capability to meet the trip criteria, we know who does. We could broker the trip, and we are not going to mark it up nearly as much as a broker would, which could be as high as 70 percent. So my advice for somebody who wants to charter is to find a reputable operator to work with.
Do you think charter brokers should be regulated?
Absolutely. And I think they should have a bond of a sizeable amount of money in order to do business, because they really have no liability. They have no overhead, no costs, except for marketing.
What do you think of fractional ownership and jet cards?
I think they’re a bunch of hooey. We frequently get offers from companies trying to get us to be part of their jet card systems. We have looked at them, because they promise so many flight hours. And we know several operators on these plans whose airplanes do get a lot of hours. But the jet card companies want us to price our time below DOC [direct operating cost] and that just doesn’t work for us. And then I see the prices that they are charging customers for their jet cards, and it is double what the clients would be paying if they went directly to the operator. It’s insane.
Are your DOCs higher than other charter operators’ DOCs?
No. The direct operating costs don’t vary that much within the types [of aircraft]. They are what they are.
What advice would you give owners who want to offer their aircraft for charter?
A lot of owners are brainwashed into thinking that a lot of hours is a good thing. But hours put wear and tear on your airplane and head it to inspections much faster. And think about the interior. Charter passengers are not the owners. You know how it is when people drive rental cars. It is the same in airplanes.
What is your opinion of Argus International and Wyvern?
I have been against paying outside auditing companies since their inception, but the FAA has proven to be less than uniform in its oversight and application of the regulations. So perhaps an objective third-party audit by these companies is not such a bad idea. At least, it makes sense on the surface.
Is LR Services rated by Argus and Wyvern?
Yes, for the Argus Gold rating and the Wyvern Pass [Pilot and Aircraft Safety Survey]. After paying a nominal membership fee, we simply go to their websites and input the data on our crews, training and so on. They also require proof of insurance each year. Of course, if they choose to audit us, we can back everything up; but they haven’t done that thus far.
You mentioned you know of a company that has an Argus Platinum rating yet had a fatal accident.
I am absolutely positive there have been many more “platinum-rated incidents” by other operators, if you care to do the research. So, do we need auditing companies to audit the auditing companies? Where does it stop? An audit is simply a snapshot of a specific moment in time. Unless the company culture is to maintain that perfect moment—and they all say they do—it’s pretty meaningless. It’s like a student prepping for an exam.
Circumstances throw a multitude of challenges at us and just because we “passed the test” once or a hundred times, it doesn’t mean we can’t be thrown something that can’t be handled, no matter how well prepared, audited and rated the company has been previously.
The auditing companies are not bulletproof. But they’ve sold this idea to the big corporations and the general public, and they are making millions off it. Ultimately, it still isn’t fair to the little operators, who can’t afford to play on that field, even though we jump through the same regulatory hoops as the big guys.
How would you prove LR Services is safe to somebody who called you?
Well, we have had no accidents and no incidents in 30-something years. We have a clean record. How else could you prove it?
LR Services’ Slice of Aviation History
Only five Learjet 28 Longhorns were built and LR Services manages the first one (serial number 28-001) for its owner, who allows it to be chartered. It has the distinction of being the airplane that astronaut Neil Armstrong flew to set five Fédération Aéronautique Internationale and National Aeronautic Association records in February 1979. In October last year, LR Services flew the Learjet 28 to Bombardier’s celebration of “Learjet 50 Years of Flight.” The author rode as a passenger on this flight and wrote about the experience for Aviation International News. —R.R.P.
BORN: Feb. 26, 1956 (age 58)
POSITION: President and majority owner, LR Services, Allentown, Pennsylvania
PREVIOUS POSITIONS: Part owner with husband, LR Services. Bank teller
EDUCATION: Cedar Crest College, Allentown, Pennsylvania. Studied micro- and macroeconomics.
PERSONAL: Lives in Lower Macungie, Pennsylvania. Divorced with two adult children, a daughter who works at LR Services and a son who lives in China. Four grandchildren. Enjoys motorcycle riding and performing in community theater. Former skydiver with more than 1,000 jumps, including an all-women group formation of 103 that set a world record in 1995.
R. Randall Padfield is COO of AIN Publications, BJT’s parent company.