Fleet of Embraers and Gulfstream bizjets flies executives, elite guests and entertainers to and from locations around the world.
By Brent Bundy
Phoenix Police Officer-Pilot AS350, AW119,
Las Vegas. Entertainment Capital of the World. Every year, millions of travelers from across the globe flock to this desert oasis for its legendary gambling, extravagant shows, and decadent buffets. No matter if the visit is your 1st or your 50th, that initial glimpse of the neon lights of The Strip sets in motion thoughts of possibilities.
For a select few, those who have proved their penchant for the preeminent Vegas experience and their ability to subsidize such a lifestyle, their method of arrival is also renowned – they have been invited by MGM Resorts, and that grants them access to a modern fleet of Embraer and Gulfstream aircraft. Welcome to Vegas, welcome to the show.
Although the past few decades have seen MGM Resorts’ expansion into a global conglomerate, the name is synonymous with Las Vegas. And another name closely attached to Vegas is Kirk Kerkorian, the legendary investor.
Kerkorian, who passed in 2015, had a deep connection to aviation. Throughout WWII, he ferried Mosquito bombers from Canada to Scotland, earning enough money to purchase a Cessna during his 1st trip to Las Vegas in 1945. Kerkorian soon bought a small charter airline flying gamblers to and from Los Angeles.
The sale of the airline would eventually help fund his foray into Las Vegas real estate and casino building. By the late 1960s, Kerkorian acquired the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer movie studio and constructed, purchased, and sold several properties in and around Las Vegas, under the MGM banner.
The original MGM Grand Hotels were sold to Bally’s in 1986, the same year MGM Resorts International was formed. Since that time, the company has become the largest resort operator on the Vegas Strip with 12 properties. Their portfolio also boasts 8 more locations east of the Mississippi, and an additional 6 around the world.
MGM and business aviation
Aviation has long been a part of the MGM Resorts plan. With the need to transport both executives and elite guests, having the right aircraft is crucial. The history of the company’s fleet goes back over 30 years, when it began flying McDonnell Douglas MD-80s, bringing in clients from all over the globe.
The fleet transitioned through various manufacturers and models until 2006, when they settled with 2 brands – Gulfstream and Boeing.
By 2007, they were flying 2 G350s, a G550, a GV, and a B737 BBJ. As needs changed, the company added a G450 in 2009. The year 2016 saw another shift, as MGM Resorts built its current collection of a Gulfstream G650ER, 2 Embraer Lineage 1000s, and 2 Embraer Legacy 500s.
Each aircraft is similarly outfitted in luxury configuration to meet the high expectations of the clientele.
The company fleet occupies twin 35,000 sq ft hangars on the northwest corner of LAS (McCarran Intl), giving customers easy access to their most-visited destination, The Strip. In addition, the company has a Cessna Citation Sovereign based in Atlantic City, which supports east coast operations.
Working directly for MGM Resorts CEO Jim Murren is Vice President John Flynn. Flynn explains that MGM Resorts, and probably Vegas as a whole, has gone through 2 reinventions of itself in the past 4 decades, and the company modified its operations to stay competitive.
“In the 1980s, gaming accounted for 85% of our business,” Flynn explains. “By the 2000s, that had changed to 70% gaming and 30% non-gaming. Today, with the variety of choices we offer, gaming makes up only about 30% of our Las Vegas revenue.”
In addition to the gambling available at nearly all MGM resorts, the company also offers an incredible variety of entertainment, shopping, and world-class dining.
From magicians to musical acts to Cirque du Soleil spectacles, the company sells more than 9 million tickets to nearly 30 shows each year, worldwide. “We currently have in excess of 40,000 rooms in Vegas alone and employ more than 81,000 people across the company,” Flynn adds.
Flynn, a colonel in the US Air Force Reserves, flew T-41s, T-34s, T-38s, and C-17s. After stints at the Pentagon, US Capitol, and White House, he joined MGM Resorts in 2016, shortly after his active duty. While the aviation group is just one of the areas under Flynn’s oversight, it is the one he feels most connected to.
And for select guests, it can be one of the most important. “MGM Resorts is all about ‘Owning the Experience.’ And as a part of that experience, the aviation team is the 1st and last impression that these guests will have,” Flynn states. Whether a guest leaves having won or lost on the gaming floor, the job of the flight department is to ensure that they are left with a positive encounter. “We build relationships with our clients,” says Flynn.
“Our goal is to shape a positive experience from beginning to end. We want them to be happy and, of course, we want them to come back.” Vice President of Aviation William “Butch” Barden joined the flight department 12 years ago and brought with him an impressive resume.
The San Diego CA native had an early exposure to aviation when he was allowed time in US Navy simulators at Miramar via a friend’s father. At 17 years old, Barden joined the US Army as a demolition specialist. After 7 years of jumping out of aircraft, he decided to fly them, so he applied to flight school. Initially assigned to Bell AH-1 Cobra helicopters, he later transitioned to Beechcraft RC-12s (King Airs) then moved on up through jet aircraft.
By the time he left the military in 2007, he had flown Gulfstream GIII/IV/V/550s and Cessna Citations, and was the Army’s most experienced Gulfstream instructor. Just 7 days after leaving the service, Barden was flying for MGM Resorts. And less than 4 months later, he had earned the assistant chief pilot spot.
Then came the 2008 recession. “Vegas turned to a ghost town,” Barden remembers. “Everyone was affected. We lost 3 pilots and 2 flight attendants.” However, the unique economy of this town quickly turned around. “Almost immediately after the downturn, we were flying record numbers of flight hours,” Barden adds.
“We hired 2 of the 3 pilots back, added 5 more, and bought a new G450. Since then, we’ve been steady with our worldwide flight operations.” In 2016, Barden took on the chief pilot role, and was promoted to vice president of aviation 2 years later. He oversees a staff of 54 personnel.
While he may be the head of the group, Barden is quick to give all the credit to his team. “My job is to help my people. Growing up within this flight department has allowed me to see that helping my people can have the greatest effect on this business,” he declares.
With the type of clients the team flies and the sheer number of events held at MGM properties, teamwork is a necessity.
“Some of the events that we fly for must be planned a year in advance. Our communication with marketing is key. We work extensively with them, which creates efficiency and saves the company money,” he explains. Flight hours average 3400 per year. 2018 saw an uptick to 3800, which, if maintained, could push for an expansion of the fleet.
“Our flights are split with about 90% for guests and 10% for entertainers and executive staff. As the company continues its growth, that could create demand for additional aircraft and personnel. We constantly evaluate our needs,” Barden states. “As the 1st and last face that our guests see, our job is to ensure that they have the ultimate MGM experience.
Whoever is closest to the guest is in charge. Our dedication to our guests demands that we listen to their requests, which means that our flight attendants are 100% supported by every teammate in the department. I work with the best people in MGM, and I have the best flight department in the world, and they make that happen every day.”
The flight team
Heading up Barden’s pilot team is Chief Pilot Mike Cummings. After high school, Cummings left his New Jersey hometown and accepted an appointment to the US Air Force Academy.
He would spend the next 23 years on active duty flying C-141s, T-1s, C-17s, and 757s in a variety of assignments, including the 89th Airlift Wing, transporting White House VIPs.
After retirement from the military in 2014, he heard that MGM was hiring. “They have such a solid reputation that I couldn’t send my resume off fast enough,” Cummings recalls. He joined shortly after and worked as a line pilot before taking over as chief pilot in 2019.
The flight crew currently consists of Cummings, 3 assistant chief pilots, and 14 line pilots. New applicants need at least 5000 flight hours with 2500–3000 hours as PIC. Aircraft type-ratings help but are not a requirement. Once hired, each pilot will be trained in at least 2 of the aircraft.
Currently, 6 team members are rated in all 3 jets. While most are signed off for international flights, the goal is for the entire group to be able to accept those assignments. Pilots work a schedule of 2 weeks on-duty, 1 week off, with most trips being scheduled in advance. “We don’t have a lot of pop-ups.
When we do, there is a 1.5-hour show up time,” Cummings explains. “We have people here with airline, military, and civilian backgrounds, so they’ve seen pretty much everything there is to see regarding schedules.” Annual recurrent training is conducted with both FlightSafety and CAE.
“Whether we are flying the executive team or our guests, we are the bookends of their experience,” stresses Cummings. “We are the first ones they see at the beginning of their travels and the last ones at the end. To be successful, we must build loyalty to the MGM brand. I feel that we do that very well.”
A key component to building that loyalty is the onboard cabin crew led by Chief Flight Attendant Karen Garris. While planning her career path, her father suggested working as a flight attendant. She liked the idea of travel and interacting with people, so she joined United Airlines.
“I spent 6 years with United, based in Las Vegas, then moved over to MGM in 2003, and I’ve been here ever since,” Garris says. In 2019, she was promoted to the chief flight attendant position.
The flight attendant team is made up of 12 attendants, including Garris. Staffing is usually 1 attendant per plane, possibly 2 on the Embraer Lineage 1000 or the Gulfstream G650ER, depending on passenger count, service requirements, and length of flight.
Although her supervisory role requires more time in the office, Garris prefers to be in the air. “The best part of this job is being in the plane, working with the pilots and the guests.
That is why I started doing this, and I still love it,” she declares. When not flying, Garris ensures that her people have what they need to fulfill their duties on board, works with the resorts to meet the needs of the guests, and assists with safety programs.
Like the pilots, the flight attendants go for annual recurrent training at FlightSafety Intl, and do in-water training in the wave pool at Mandalay Bay. “Our job is to not only take care of the inflight requests of our guests, but also to make sure they are safe at all times. That’s just one more part of the relationship we build with our guests,” Garris explains.
“This is a dream job. I have a passion for this company and for the people I serve. My team and I are tasked with a very important part of the MGM experience, and we are focused on doing fantastic job.”
Overseeing the safety of customers and crew is Director of Aviation and Transportation Safety Mark Antunes. Like much of the management team at MGM Resorts, Antunes comes from a military background.
He joined the US Air Force in 1983 and spent time as a crew chief on A-10s and F-15s, at bases around the world. In 2003, he joined – and later led – the maintenance crew of the iconic Thunderbirds demonstration squadron.
After his service days, he signed on with MGM Resorts in late 2007. In addition to writing operations manuals, Antunes helped develop the in-house-designed safety management system (SMS).
“When I am asked about our SMS, I tell people that our operations manual is our SMS. Our entire program is designed around safety and it’s constantly evolving. We’re on version 9 in 12 years,” Antunes conveys.
The team’s dedication to safety was proved in March 2019, when they held their 1st-ever safety stand-down. No flights were conducted during the event. “Upper management was in complete support of us,” relates Antunes. “A last-minute flight was scheduled, but the company chartered it so everyone in the group could attend it.” If necessary, anyone in the flight group can call in “fatigued.”
If they feel they are not safe, they can advise Antunes, and they are not questioned. “We will not put anyone on a flight if they are not 100% ready,” Antunes confirms. The team also has regular meetings of their Safety Action Committee (SAC) that is made up of representatives from each group in the flight department, and with a Safety Action Group, comprised of management that responds to concerns from the SAC.
“We are providing a valuable service to MGM Resorts. The executive staff recognizes this and the need to put safety above all else. Safety is our culture here and we will not compromise that.”
Another key element to the culture of safety is Director of Maintenance Programs Patricia Pica. Her trek to MGM Resorts began after time spent with a helicopter operator in Texas, followed by a decade in the hospitality industry with Hyatt.
After a hiatus to raise a family, Pica reentered the aviation field with XOJet in 2009. She began working in maintenance control, and later assisted in a transition between Embraer models.
Her experience would come into play in 2016, when she joined MGM Resorts and the company was moving to Embraer products.
Pica oversees the 10 technicians working on the aircraft. “I’m not the one turning wrenches. Instead, I assist in running the business side of the maintenance department, which is one of our largest department expenditures, along with payroll and fuel,” she explains.
Her duties include remaining compliant, account reconciliation, and budget work, among other tasks.
With an entire fleet just over 3 years old, 4 of which were delivered in a 30-day period in 2016, Pica’s techs needed to be brought up to speed quickly, which Embraer and FSI assisted with. The maintenance staff attends annual training at FSI. Pica’s goal is to have all of her team certified as Master Techs.
Her very experienced crew can handle most jobs in-house, but major work is sent out. The regular agenda of high-profile events at MGM resorts can also prove challenging for maintenance schedules. “There is a lot more to maintenance work than the hands-on aspect, and that is where I come in,” Pica states.
“We are an instrumental tool for our resort hosts, and it is the job of my team to make sure that the pilots have safe aircraft.” Connecting the dots between the hosts, guests, and pilots is the operations group. Watching over this section is Operations Supervisor Dani McLaughlin.
Her career with MGM Resorts began in 2003 working for the Bellagio as a limo dispatcher. In 2007, one of her drivers moved to the aviation team as a flight attendant and convinced McLaughlin to join him. She would spend the next 10 years as a flight dispatcher before taking over as supervisor in 2017.
Her team of 7 is responsible for working with the resort hosts to arrange the trips. “With all the variables between aircraft, guests, pilots and so forth, it’s like a big puzzle. That’s the fun part for me, putting the pieces of the puzzle together,” McLaughlin illustrates.
“From the initial call from the host, to arranging ground transportation at both ends, and working with the pilot group, we are here to put together the best trip for our guests. We are arranging the MGM experience for them.”
Welcome to the show
MGM Resorts represents a pinnacle of the entertainment adventure. Whether visiting Las Vegas or one of several other locales around the planet, every patron can expect a memorable encounter.
However, if you agree with the phrase “the journey is the destination,” and you have the means to make an elite list, the aviation team at MGM Resorts will make sure that your journey is truly one to remember. They will make it the MGM experience and bring meaning to their slogan – “Welcome to the show!”
Brent Bundy has been a police officer with the Phoenix Police Dept for 28 years. He has served in the PHX Air Support Unit for 18 years and is a helicopter rescue pilot with nearly 4000 hours of flight time. Bundy currently flies Airbus AS350B3s for the helicopter side of Phoenix PD’s air unit and Cessna 172, 182s and 210s for the fixed-wing side.