PORTLAND – A nine-passenger Hawker 1000 corporate jet with plush leather seats rests in a hangar on the east side of the Portland International Jetport. 

Workers at Maine Aviation Corp., which owns the jet, are fixing it up: replacing engines, conducting maintenance checks and rehabbing the interior.

Once finished, the plane will be sold for an asking price of about $4 million.

Refurbishing and selling jets has helped Portland-based Maine Aviation, one of the state’s largest aviation service companies, weather a recession that was particularly tough on the private plane industry. So too has steady maintenance work, rebounding charter and aircraft management revenue and, customers say, a reputation for quality work.

“We are good for Maine,” said Maine Aviation President, CEO and co-owner Allyn Caruso.

“We can provide a good value (because) our labor rates are cheaper here than in New York City. We can convince people to have their planes based in Maine,” said Caruso from an office inside the Jetport’s former terminal building, a brick structure on Westbrook Street.

Maine Aviation is a so-called “fixed-base operator,” or FBO: a company that provides aviation services at an airport.

In addition to selling rehabbed jets, Maine Aviation runs a flight school at the Jetport, provides aircraft maintenance and manages between 12 and 15 aircraft owned by others.

Maine Aviation also owns (or part owns) a fleet of 11 charter planes, including Hawker 1000s, Bombardier Challenger 850s and smaller planes like the Beechcraft King Air.

Caruso, a pilot himself, captained a jet ferrying the Bon Jovi band across South and Central America for a tour last fall.

The firm has roughly 65 staff, including dispatchers, schedulers, mechanics, office staff and flight crews.

About 50 people work in Maine, and some pilots and flight attendants are based in places like Naples, Fla., and Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia.

Caruso said Maine Aviation’s annual revenue ranges from $20 million to $60 million yearly, depending on aircraft sales.

The company is the oldest dealer of Cessna aircraft east of the Mississippi River, having sold the planes since 1953.

Maine Aviation’s roots extend to the mid- to late-1940s, when Caruso’s father Joseph and his uncle Thomas, both World War II aviators, launched an aerial sightseeing company in Bar Harbor.

The brothers later leased the Bar Harbor airport after the field was abandoned by the U.S. Navy after the war.

Caruso said his family supplemented income in the early days by holding weekly dances, open to the public for a fee, in an airport hangar. 

“They made more money off the dances than they did in aviation,” said Caruso.

In 1956, the family moved to Lewiston and started Maine Aviation Corp. The company moved to Portland’s Jetport in 1959.

The Carusos also started Bar Harbor Airlines, a regional commercial airline that flew to Northeast cities and later operated commuter flights under agreement with Continental Airlines and Eastern Air Lines. Bar Harbor Airlines once flew from bases as far south as Miami and was sold in the late 1980s to Texas Air, then owner of Continental and Eastern.

Maine Aviation is still family-owned by Caruso and his wife, Alysan, the general manager. Their youngest son, Travis, is director of maintenance.

Some customers say the company’s longevity comes from a reputation for quality work at fair prices.

“Aviation is expensive, but these guys work hard to keep costs down,” said Eric Cianchette of Falmouth, who has bought three Cessnas from Maine Aviation. “These guys have a hell of a reputation. That’s why (they) are doing so well.”

The private aviation industry has suffered in recent years.

According to a report from the General Aviation Manufacturers Association, 2,015 general aviation aircraft were shipped to clients in 2010, down from a high of 4,270 in 2007.

Insiders attribute the drop to the recession and political pressures, including comments made by President Barack Obama, who criticized executives of the Big Three automakers for flying to Washington in private jets to ask for bailout money in 2008.

“When Obama made it a sin to fly in a corporate jet, it was pretty much like shutting the lights off,” said Caruso.

Those comments and the recession caused Maine Aviation’s charter revenue to drop 70 percent between 2008 and 2007, which led to staff cuts, said Caruso.

Cessna sales also fell from roughly 15 to 20 planes yearly to between four and six.

Barry Valentine, former director of aeronautics in Maine and former acting administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration, said the aviation industry closely mirrors the country’s economy.

Valentine, who also managed the Jetport, said many aviation service companies have struggled with declining charter revenue and private aircraft sales.

Despite tough years, Caruso said sales of refurbished jets to international clients, including those in Japan, Singapore, Iraq, Jakarta and Beirut, have remained strong recently.

And Caruso said the recession had limited impact on maintenance revenue — planes, even repossessed aircraft, need work whether they fly or sit, Caruso said.

Maine’s aviation industry scored a victory earlier this year when the state eliminated a 5 percent sales tax on aircraft parts and a 5 percent use tax, which was levied against owners who flew their planes to Maine for more than 20 days.

“It’s a law that ought not to have been there,” said Valentine. “It was keeping people with airplanes out of the state, which is not good for the economy or businesses like (Maine Aviation).”

Caruso said the tax changes will help Maine Aviation compete with aircraft maintenance companies in neighboring states that don’t have the tax, like New Hampshire.

In fall 2012, Maine Aviation plans to expand into two new 14,400-square-foot hangars. The company will also begin selling fuel and has plans to relocate three planes from Portsmouth, N.H., where they are currently based, to Portland.

Caruso said the upgrades will help the company offer more services at competitive prices, and attract out-of-state aircraft owners searching for a maintenance or management shop.

“We have to have lower hangar rates and attractive fuel pricing. That goes a long way in convincing people to give us their plane,” he said.

Jonathan Hemmerdinger can be reached at 791-6316 or:

[email protected]