Podcast: What It Takes To Fly Presidential Candidates

Advanced Aviation Team CEO Gregg Brunson-Pitts discusses what is involved in chartering aircraft for presidential candidates—from logistics to working with the Secret Service—and upsizing aircraft as the campaign evolves. Hosted by Lee Ann Shay, Aviation Week's executive editor for business aviation and MRO. 

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Rush Transcript: 

Lee Ann Shay: Welcome to this BCA Podcast. I'm Lee Ann Shay, Aviation Week's Executive Editor of Business Aviation at MRO, and I'm delighted to be here with Gregg Brunson-Pitts, who is founder and CEO of Advanced Aviation Team. The company is a charter brokerage firm based in Arlington, Virginia, which is just outside of Washington. Gregg began his career in the George W. Bush White House as director of the White House Travel Office, and today his firm caters to clients with complex travel needs.

For instance, in 2020, Advanced Aviation Team was the exclusive charter provider for the Biden-Harris presidential campaign. They executed more than 1,130 flights, which is quite a few. Gregg, welcome to this podcast.

Gregg Brunson-Pitts: Thank you very much, Lee Ann. Excited to be here and talk to you.

Lee Ann Shay: Providing lift for the immense amount of travel that presidential candidates undertake must be quite an effort. Can you talk about how that worked with the Biden-Harris campaign?

Gregg Brunson-Pitts: Yes, definitely. It was really exciting and we were on a roll with the campaign in 2019 and leading into 2020. And then like everybody, COVID hit and we really had to pivot and to come up with solutions for our client to get them from point A to point B really in a safe way. COVID really added an extra layer of logistics onto everything that we do on behalf of our clients. I mean, so much of what we do for our clients is logistics related. What we were doing on behalf of our clients were COVID tests.

Anyone that traveled for the Biden campaign or came in contact with them had to be COVID test negative, and then included all the crew members for all the charters, not just for the principals, for then Vice President Biden and Senator Harris, but for all the surrogates. We were coordinating all the crew members to get a COVID negative test before every single charter flight that we coordinated. That was in addition to all the regular stuff that you do when you coordinate a charter.

If you're a charter professional, that aid into crew duty day. It was just an immense amount of additional work that we did on behalf of the campaign, and I'm really proud of what we did.

Lee Ann Shay: Okay, that sounds like a lot of extra details and scheduling. On top of that, you had to deal with tight schedules, the Secret Service and other logistics. What were the biggest challenges?

Gregg Brunson-Pitts: I think you named some of the things there and it is the long days and making sure that we remain nimble and flexible because schedules do change. You're coordinating all of these moving parts for the campaign, and it's being a reliable partner for them. When their schedule changes and they need an additional crew because they have to get on live TV because there is a world event or because they add an extra stop onto the campaign, that you have another crew that is available.

It's just being a reliable partner. I think where Advanced Aviation Team, where we really excel is that we have been there. Just from my experience at the White House and working on a presidential campaign, there's a shared language there. We've done a lot of campaign work in the past. I've worked with the Secret Service for years. I understand what the steps are involved in having a security detail that travels along with and having the media that travels along with.

The stakes get really high when you get close to election day, and the pace, it picks up as you get closer and closer to election day. We keep our heads down and we just remain a reliable aviation partner.

Lee Ann Shay: You've got that experience working with the Secret Service, et cetera. Is the bigger challenge just the additional stops and the crew scheduling part?

Gregg Brunson-Pitts: Yes, it's additional crews. The size of the plane gets larger. As the candidate goes from the primary, the aircraft are smaller. And then a candidate wins the nomination, so the aircraft could be larger into maybe a heavy jet. And then into the nomination, then the candidate goes into an airliner, a customized airliner. And then we see that candidate all the way through this entire process where we can customize an airliner for them and paint the outside and customize the interior.

We are working through this process with them. And then the vice presidential candidate also has a specialized, customized aircraft that we are brokering on their behalf. The operation, it just evolves and it gets much larger. And then there are surrogates that travel on behalf of the campaign, and so we are managing those as well. It's really exciting, and we're growing along with their team. A campaign is a lot like a small business. As the campaign grows, they're adding people.

We are a steady and trusted partner along the way as the campaign grows and as the primary candidate becomes the nominee, and then they add their vice presidential candidate and they're adding aircraft and larger aircraft, and then surrogate travel. It just gets bigger and bigger.

Lee Ann Shay: Well, as you know, 2024, next year, is another presidential election. We know we're a little more than a year out. Where are you working with clients? Are you starting this ramp up?

Gregg Brunson-Pitts: Yes. Yes, we are. The presidential campaign begins the year prior and even before that. I mean, relationships we have with candidates start years before, and so we have been working with some candidates already on a smaller basis ,of course. Yes, we've been working with candidates and flying them around.

Lee Ann Shay: How many aircraft do you operate for your charter business?

Gregg Brunson-Pitts: That's a great question. As a charter broker, we are not tied to a specific fleet. We can really charter any size aircraft really anywhere. We are not tied to the United States. We could charter an aircraft internationally. We can charter an aircraft for one person up to several hundred people, and we can really customize the experience for what our clients are looking for.

It could be really a budget type aircraft up to a super luxury type of experience. We're not really tied to a certain number of aircraft. We could do anything from a turboprop up to a luxury Triple Seven that could go around the world.

Lee Ann Shay: What is the market like today? Are you seeing more demand for the turboprops or the mid-size or the heavier jets?

Gregg Brunson-Pitts: The demand for super mid-size aircraft is really high right now. I think that category of aircraft has seen a big spike in demand. You mentioned turboprop. I think the shorter hops and then transcontinental across the United States, demand is really high there.

Lee Ann Shay: Are you seeing international demand pick up too?

Gregg Brunson-Pitts: It was for a period. We do a decent amount of international travel. For Advanced Aviation Team, because our offering is very customized and boutique, we do a decent amount. I think industry-wide, I think international travel has waned a little bit post-pandemic. It sort of picked up, and then now I think it's waned a bit.

Lee Ann Shay: It's no secret that there's a pilot shortage from commercial airlines, regional airlines, business to corporate aviation. How is pilot recruiting going for you?

Gregg Brunson-Pitts: For us specifically, we don't employ pilots. We hire the pilots that we contract along with the operator. But I think industry-wide pilot shortages is still an issue. I read some interesting data a few weeks ago that in the next decade, the industry will need 1.3 million new employees and that includes pilots. This is for commercial aviation and business aviation, 1.3 million new employees, pilots, technicians, and cabin crew.

This is a big issue for our industry, for recruitment and getting people interested in this industry and making sure that we are opening the doors wide across and to make sure that people are interested in coming to our industry and being involved in aviation.

Lee Ann Shay: Do you have any challenges on the scheduling dispatch side?

Gregg Brunson-Pitts: I think one of our biggest challenges is ensuring that we are working with quality operators and quality partners who share the same philosophy, and that is delivering quality customer service 24/7. It's easy to say that, that you are a 24/7 operation, but aviation really is 24/7. That includes weekends, that includes nights. We really strive to work with high quality aircraft operators. Advanced Aviation Team is really a customized charter broker. Like I mentioned, that we really strive to customize the experience for our clients.

Lee Ann Shay: Besides presidential candidates, what other niches do you have today or do you primarily focus on elected officials or campaigns?

Gregg Brunson-Pitts: That's a great question. We do a lot of road shows and tours and music groups and family office, and I think those are areas where we really, really excel the most, people that need a lot of close attention. It's not just a one contract thing. They're looking for someone to be with them over the long-term. Those are the type of clients that really gravitate toward Advanced Aviation Team.

Lee Ann Shay: That sounds good. Well, Gregg, thank you so much for your time. Really appreciate it.

Gregg Brunson-Pitts: You're welcome, Lee Ann. Thank you for the opportunity.

Lee Ann Shay: You're welcome. And listeners, please don't miss the next episode by subscribing to the BCA Podcast wherever you listen to them. One last request, if you're listening in Apple Podcasts and would like to support us, please leave us a star rating or write a review. Thank you so much. 

Lee Ann Shay

As executive editor of MRO and business aviation, Lee Ann Shay directs Aviation Week's coverage of maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO), including Inside MRO, and business aviation, including BCA.