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Tri-City Aviation: 50 years of wheels up

Hank Hayes • Apr 1, 2019 at 8:30 AM

BLOUNTVILLE – The year was 1969. A general aviation operator at Tri-Cities Airport had gone bankrupt, with the state of Tennessee seizing its assets.

Don Carter, who was employed by the old Kingsport Press bookmaking company in research and development at the time, saw an opportunity.

With the help of a brother-in-law and some lawyers, Carter acquired those assets and changed the general aviation operator’s name to Tri-City Aviation (TCA), which is now celebrating its 50th year in business.

The startup went through some economic turbulence.

“It was mostly private aviation,” Carter, who has retired from TCA but remains a consultant, said of the business environment when he took over. “There weren’t many corporate people at the time. People tried to help us out but there wasn’t a whole lot going on … I was here for about five years before I saw any profits.”

Remember Piedmont Airlines? It was at the airport, as was Southern Airways. TCA, meanwhile, was trying to carve out a niche with private pilots and corporate clients needing to get their planes fueled and serviced.

Carter kept his job at the Kingsport Press while operating TCA. He trained new employees – including the receptionists – to focus on customers’ needs. He also started bringing his daughter, Pam, to the airport when she was 13 and even fired her a couple of times after employing her.

Daughter Pam Phillips is now TCA’s owner and general manager.

TCA’s services include fuel sales, airplane maintenance and renting hangar space.

To keep up with changes in general aviation, TCA strives to have rental cars available for travelers, make hotel reservations and have catering available for aircraft before it leaves.

“The business today is looking very positive,” Carter observed. “There’s more corporate aviation … people used to get a pilot’s license to impress their friends. That don’t happen anymore.”

Phillips said she’s learned from her father’s customer-oriented philosophies.

Phillips also takes pride in that her husband, Bryan, is the line service manager, and longtime employee Mike Lloyd is the operations and maintenance manager.

“The employees we have, we try to treat them like family. It’s a family environment,” Pam Phillips said. “You always have to be looking for a niche that brings the money in. I see gradual growth mainly on the corporate end … I would like to bring a lot of the smaller aircraft back here.”

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee declared March to be “General Aviation Month” to recognize the industry’s $1 billion economic impact on the state.

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