Charter activity serves customers from its 2 bases in the Las Vegas area with a mixed fleet of Citation and Falcon jets.
By Brent Bundy
Phoenix Police Officer-Pilot (ret)
AS350, AW119, Cessna 210/182/172
The formula for a successful charter operation is tried and true. Assemble a fleet of aircraft, mix in qualified personnel, find an accessible location, and provide customers with the best value.
The result is a tidy profit. What if there was another way? What if the focus wasn’t on the bottom line, but on making a difference?
In other words, not just to change aircraft charter but to have a positive impact on the lives of their customers, their employees, and the industry itself. It’s a lofty goal, but that is the target set by Thrive Aviation.
Burning the boats
History records several instances of invaders landing on foreign soil and giving the command to “burn the boats.” The strategy of leaving no option but to succeed has been applied to the battlefield and to the boardroom. This was the approach taken by CEO Curtis Edenfield when he embarked on his quest of forming a different charter operation.
“I told myself that there was no other way but going forward. Failure was not an option,” he says. Aviation was a part of Curtis’s upbringing. His father was a pilot and his mother a flight attendant. “Growing up, my brother Stuart and I would travel the world on buddy passes from my parents,” he recalls.
After graduating from Southern Methodist University with degrees in finance and public policy, Curtis spent time with a real estate consulting firm. But the draw of aviation was too strong, and he soon joined Southwest Airlines. Over the next decade, he would work in several technical departments, including revenue management, corporate delivery, and helping implement a new reservation system.
“I had planned to be with Southwest my whole career,” says Curtis, “but I always had a desire to build something of my own. When the opportunity presented itself, I couldn’t say no.” While Curtis was with Southwest, his brother Stuart had become a pilot.
“My plan was to get him into the Southwest family after building enough flight hours,” he says. Working as a flight instructor in Denver, his brother trained and began flying for a gentleman who had recently purchased a jet. As a lover of data, Curtis looked at his brother’s work and analyzed the logistics.
“Around 2017, I realized there was a business opportunity,” he adds. In December 2017, Curtis prepared a presentation and met his brother and the aircraft owner at LAS (McCarran, Las Vegas NV).
“We never even left the airport,” remembers Curtis. “For 4 hours, we sat at a coffee shop and discussed putting this plan in motion.
From that moment, I had a feeling it was the right thing to do.” With a newborn at home and a wife with a career in Dallas, he knew it was a huge step.
But within 2 months, he had moved to Henderson NV. “I never thought I’d live in Las Vegas, but I came here to build this company and change my life, along with the lives of those who built this with us.”
The plan comes together
One of the first steps was to obtain a charter certificate. “I reached out to FAA and was told that, with the combination of pro sports teams relocating to Vegas and the explosive growth of the city, everyone wanted a certificate here,” explains Curtis. The next step was to look for an existing certificate to acquire.
After dozens of phone calls, he found Corporate Flight International (CFI). At the time, Curtis and Stuart’s Edenfield’s partner owned 4 Cessna Citation CJ3+ and 2 Citation M2s. CFI had 2 airplanes on its charter certificate, both of which were removed when Thrive took over in May 2018.
“Our aircraft are privately owned, so it works out perfectly,” says Curtis. During this time, Curtis and his business partners had one goal – not to lose money.
The partners love aviation, he says. “They told us that 80% of this endeavor was for us to accomplish our goals and make a difference in people’s lives.
That’s something you don’t hear every day, and we’ve built our culture around that ideal.” In September 2018, they moved into a hangar at HSH (Henderson NV) and conducted their first full month of operations. The company’s rapid growth continued into 2019 as the entire fleet finally joined the certificate, they moved into new headquarters at HSH, and a new Citation XLS+ was acquired.
June was pivotal as they branched out to LAS with a new hangar. “That was the point that struck home with me,” explains Curtis. “That expansion meant I wasn’t just disrupting my family, but 80 other families as well.” This motivation kept him going as they moved into their new hangar, and the Thrive Aviation brand became official by late 2019.
Before the end of the year, they had purchased a Dassault Falcon 2000, flown their first trip to Hawaii, and opened a maintenance facility at LAS.
2020 started strong, with new aircraft, trips being scheduled, and the opening of a new executive customer lounge. Anticipating continued growth, they began aggressive recruitment. As things were hitting stride, the pandemic struck.
“Between April and July 2020, our flying dropped 96%,” Curtis reports. Thrive’s response was what Curtis calls “Operation Hail Mary” – the company’s internal survival plan.
“We had 2 priorities,” he recalls. “First and foremost was the physical and financial wellbeing of our employees. Second was to come out of this stronger.” That meant a handful of difficult furloughs and a 25% salary reduction. But, Curtis points out, “Even with those negatives, our employees bent over backwards to get us through.”
The result was a transformation into a new version of Thrive. “Hoping the worst is behind us, we’ve seen some positives,” says Curtis. “We adopted a ‘floating fleet’ approach, keeping the planes moving to where the demand is. It has really expanded our footprint.
We also modified pricing aggressively. As an owner/operator, we have that flexibility. Recruitment has also continued. This won’t last forever, and we want to be ready on the other side.” Proof of their refusal to sit back and wait was the delivery of 3 Cessna Citation Sovereign+ and a Citation Longitude in December 2020, to be followed by acquisition of a 4th Sovereign+, due to be delivered in May 2021.
Curtis summarizes Thrive’s coming of age when he says, “Since January 2019, when all our planes were on one certificate, we’ve doubled our fleet, increased personnel eightfold, expanded offices 3 times, built a hangar, and modified our business model.
Years from now, I want to be able to look back and say, ‘We built that, and we’re proud of what we’ve done.’”
Curtis could not have made Thrive what it is without a team as unrelenting as himself. The name that comes up most with Curtis is his brother, Vice President of Flight Operations Stuart Edenfield.
The aviation bug bit Stuart early when, like Curtis, he had access to airline buddy passes. “We would travel just to travel, often with no destination in mind,” Stuart remembers. He also graduated from SMU with a finance degree in 2007. “The 2008 recession was brutal for finance,” he adds.
“I realized quickly I missed traveling, and I saw the quality of life my parents had in aviation. So, in 2012, I took up flying.”
As a precursor to their future together, he began flight lessons the same week Curtis joined Southwest. Stuart attended ATP flight school in Atlanta GA.
Within 4 months, he had earned all his ratings, shy of an ATP. As one of the quickest students to complete ATP’s program, they offered him an instructing position in Jacksonville FL. After standardization, he was sent to VGT (North Las Vegas NV) to promote ATP’s program there, then soon moved to Denver to assist in opening a new location.
Within 11 months, he’d helped turn a single-student, 1-airplane operation into one of ATP’s fastest-growing programs, with 25 students and 12 planes. After he’d built enough hours, Stuart intended to join the airlines, but that plan was disrupted when he was asked to take a student from private pilot to commercial multi-engine rating in 2 weeks, in preparation for taking delivery of a new jet.
Little did he know that this student would become his future business partner at what would become Thrive Aviation. Their time together proved fortuitous a month later, when Stuart joined his former student to fly his plane. This would be his first jet time.
However, as the plane wasn’t flying often, he looked into charter options. He wrote a business plan, and found a charter operator to join. Over the next 4 years, they would purchase 5 additional jets. Looking to have more operational control of their aircraft, they began to consider alternatives, including their own business.
For a short time, they placed 2 of their planes with a well-established management company. After seeing the pros and cons of someone else managing their aircraft, Curtis was tapped into for data analysis, their meeting occurred, and the groundwork for Thrive was set.
“We recognized what was wrong with the charter industry, and we knew we could do it better,” says Stuart. “The people, customers, and employees were not the priority. We wanted to shift focus from being purely about profit to making people’s lives better.
This was an opportunity to make an impact in this industry and show a different side to private aviation.”
The business side of Thrive
As the Thrive vision was taking shape, the founders knew they needed an expert on the business side. They turned to Sr VP of Business Development Scott Musselwhite.
He grew up around aviation, with his father as an NCO at the US Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. Musselwhite began flight lessons at 15 years old, but stepped away from aviation before completing training, and didn’t return until he was in his 30s.
He spent his early career working in finance in southern California. “I was doing well professionally. Then woke up one day and realized I was miserable in that field,” he relates. “I decided at that moment that I would seek a new path in aviation.”
To get his foot in the door of aviation, Musselwhite did a quick stint of line service before being moved to FBO sales.
He would take on a few roles before joining the founders of an up-and-coming charter operation. “That’s where my passion for business aviation lit up,” he says. After a decade with that operation, Musselwhite began working in aircraft brokering and consulting. “It was an excellent experience that allowed me to build a lot of great relationships,” he adds.
In mid-2020, a friend suggested Musselwhite look at Thrive. “He told me that something seemed different – that they were really focused on efficiency and the culture,” he recalls. After a few weeks of discussion, Musselwhite joined the team. “From the get-go, I realized Thrive was unique. I also saw that they were poised for explosive growth,“ he continues.
“More important to me was that I saw an opportunity to change people’s lives – both our employees and our customers.” Like the Edenfields, Musselwhite is clear that the focus is not just profit. “Our priority is to concentrate on why people fly private and to innovate in ways that facilitate that experience.” he affirms.
Part of that innovation was tapping into existing experience. VP of Business Operations Myra Aplaon was with Corporate Flight International when Thrive acquired its charter certificate. The Philippine native came to the USA with her mother, who worked in aviation insurance.
“I had a lot of on-the-job training with my mom,” she says. “It really nurtured my desire to learn this industry.” When Thrive took over, Aplaon realized there was something unique. “The first time I saw their planes and heard their vision for the company, I knew I was in the right place,” she says.
Her current position has her overseeing the day-to-day business operations, including accounting and human resources. “My role at Thrive is perfect, she says.
“It allows me to help people achieve their professional goals. Our success stems from everyone’s hard work. That’s what Thrive is all about. We want people to be proud to be here.”
No aviation operation can succeed without safety at the forefront, and that is certainly the case with Thrive. They have attained Argus Gold rating, and by Q3 2021 they expect to hold Argus Platinum, Wyvern Wingman, and IS-BAO Stage 1.
Helping to achieve those goals is Manager of Ground Operations Wayne Middleton. The son of a lieutenant with the Miami Metro-Dade Police Helicopter Operations, he spent plenty of time at the airport as a child. This led to a line service job out of high school.
His efforts would earn him the position of general manager of customer service. Middleton would become an operations manager at GNV (Gainesville FL) before taking over as assistant airport director at OCF (Ocala FL) in 2006. “I stayed there for 8 years,” he recalls, “and that’s where I learned the most.”
While at OCF, Middleton was pivotal in the airport becoming tower-controlled. In 2014, Middleton took over as airport director at X60 (Williston FL). “That’s where I was able to combine my FBO and airport management experience,” he says. “That airport was probably 6 months from closing, and we turned it into a jewel for the county.”
The year 2018 saw him dive into private aviation as business development director for MZeroA Flight Training. “I missed working with planes, so in November 2020, when I saw a job posting for Thrive, I thought, ‘Las Vegas, planes, ground ops, it’s perfect!’” he declares.
With Thrive, Middleton works with 5 ground handlers and an aircraft appearance tech. “We have 6 people, but, with our growth, that will double,” he predicts. His time is spent between the 21,000-sq-ft main hangar at LAS and the 7000-sq-ft HSH facility.
Thrive also has a 5000-sq-ft maintenance hangar at LAS, coordinated by a director of maintenance, 5 technicians, and a director of maintenance control. “I’ve been in this industry for 27 years, and have never seen an operation like this,” says Middleton.
“Everything we do is about the people. The management here truly cares about their employees as much as the customers. From the client’s first phone call until ‘the last mile’ when they arrive home, we want them to expect more from private jet travel. And we want Thrive to be a leader.”
Is it possible for Thrive to continue the growth they’ve seen in their first 2 years? Curtis Edenfield makes it clear that they won’t be sitting on the sidelines and waiting. There is no segment of the charter world they aren’t eyeing.
Ultra-long-range offerings, additional bases, partnerships with peripheral business opportunities – nothing is off the table. “We have a 5-year plan with a lot more to come. We are a humble company and I’m passionate about our brand voice and how we’re portrayed,” Curtis proclaims. “I want to innovate and push this industry forward. I want Thrive to be like no other operator.”
Thrive Aviation has all the elements for continued success, with a motivated management team, a crystal-clear vision, and a desire to disrupt an industry while focusing on the people making it happen.
Brent Bundy served as a police officer with the Phoenix Police Dept for 29 years. He flew with the PHX Air Support Unit for 19 years, and is a helicopter pilot with nearly 4000 hrs of flight time. He has flown Airbus AS350B3s for the helicopter side of Phoenix PD’s air unit, and Cessna 172, 182s and 210s for the fixed-wing side.