Own a jet? This Petaluma company will take care of it for you

Solairus, based in a downtown office, provides flight crew, maintenance and administrative support for 95 private aircraft nationally.|

Flying largely under the radar in a modern office building on the edge of Petaluma’s downtown, Solairus Aviation has become a major player in the world of private aircraft management, with around 80 local employees joining a total of 500 pilots, crew, mechanics and administrative workers across the country, said CEO Dan Drohan.

With its roots in an aerial tour business that Drohan started with a single aircraft when he was 20, Solairus provides flight crew, maintenance and administrative support for 95 private aircraft nationally, as well as a charter flight service. The company is now the third-largest private aircraft management and charter firm in the nation, he said, overseeing planes that range from the 11-passenger turboprop King Air to the 18-passenger, $65 million Gulfstream G650 jet.

Solairus has been steadily increasing its staff and client base since its launch in 2009, but Drohan said that the privately held company is not growing “simply for the sake of growth.” Adding clients incrementally through referrals and word-of-mouth has allowed Solairus to maintain a high level of service for clients, something the CEO said is essential in the world of private aviation.

“I want every account we have to be treated as if they are the only account we have,” he said.

Solarius caters to those who already own a large multi-passenger aircraft - often corporations or wealthy individuals - and handles all aspects of the cumbersome logistics that come with it. The company hires pilots and attendants to suit the customer’s particular needs, along with managing insurance, training, fuel, storage, maintenance and other obligations.

Owners also have the option of offering their aircraft for use in Solairus’ charter flight service, Drohan said.

“We consider it a service we offer,” he said. “Our core business is the management portion.”

The company’s Petaluma headquarters handles the majority of administration and client services. Drohan said it was unusual for an aviation company to be located away from an airport, yet the proximity to restaurants and other amenities has made the downtown Petaluma location work well for clients and staff alike.

“It took us about 24 hours to love it,” he said.

A native of Marin County who moved to Petaluma at 25, Drohan began his career in aviation as a young teenager taking odd jobs at Sonoma’s Schellville airport. He began flying soon after, and he returned to the North Bay to pursue an aviation job after a short time in college.

He used what was left of the college fund to purchase a small twin-engine aircraft and launch Sunset Aviation, a tour business and a distant predecessor to Solairus, in 1992. The company ultimately evolved into a charter business with around 60 employees and 20 aircraft before it was sold and merged in 2007 with Pennsylvania-based JetDirect Aviation.

The combination didn’t last long. JetDirect declared bankruptcy in 2009, and shed most of its assets and employees during restructuring. Drohan got together with a small group of aviation industry veterans and launched Solairus that same year, hiring back most of the former Sunset employees laid off by JetDirect.

Unlike its larger competitors, Executive Jet Management and Jet Aviation, which Drohan said generally try to limit the interaction between crew and clients, Solairus encourages its crews and support staff to foster an active and friendly relationship. It’s a people-focused approach that the CEO said forms the basis of the company culture and defines Solairus in relation its rivals.

“We allow each account to have its own rhythm and vibe,” he said.

The approach has helped the company attract new business and grow in recent years. Solairus expanded its office space at the Theatre District in Petaluma by 20 percent this year, along with opening a new office in Purchase, N.Y. The company has 35 locations around the country, most of which are small offices in private hangers.

Drohan said Solairus is taking its time as it grows, focusing on client service.

“We kind of view ourselves as the feisty ankle-biter based in wine country,” he said. “We can be anywhere in the country, but we choose Petaluma.”

(Contact Eric Gneckow at eric.gneckow@arguscourier.com. On Twitter @Eric_Reports.)

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