ALBANY — The Alan Mathis who insists that pilots and passengers who are tended to by his Eagles of America staff at the Southwest Georgia Regional Airport get the best customer service possible is not the same Alan Mathis who, 20 years ago, made bombing runs in support of NATO-sanctioned military action in Bosnia.
A Top Gun-trained Navy pilot who left the military 10 years into his career after he’d “done everything I said I wanted to do,” Mathis is now the consummate businessman, in charge of fixed-base operations at Albany- and Moultrie-based airports. But spend a little time talking with Mathis about his flyboy past and his future business plans, and you gradually realize that the same passion that drove him as a defender of America is the one that drives him now.
“I was on the low end of cocky when I was a Navy pilot, but that was over the top in the civilian world,” Mathis, a Moultrie native who returned home after his military service, said. “I had to throttle myself way back, get rid of that Navy attitude. It took divine providence — and a few words from my wife — to remind me that I’m not the center of my universe.
“My wife (Dena) reminded me that the airport is not the cockpit of a fighter plane.”
Mathis’ tempered passion has served him well in the 12-plus years he’s managed operations at the Moultrie airport and the six in Albany. He’s taken over operations that, in the case of Moultrie, he was told had “maxed out” its business potential and, in Albany, had been losing as much as $20,000 a month. And he’s turned both operations around.
“We’re fortunate to have someone like Alan running our fixed-base operations,” city of Albany Transportation Director David Hamilton said. “The services they provide are top-of-the-line, and Alan has helped us realize the potential that exists at the airport. I think the partnership we’ve developed with Alan and Eagles of America is one of the reasons we’re seeing renewed interest in our airport.”
Mathis left Moultrie for the Air Force Academy when he graduated Colquitt County High School in 1984, and he was one of six airmen from the Class of ‘89 selected for cross commission into the Navy.
“I wasn’t much into boats — I always wanted to fly — but it was something of an honor to be selected for the commission,” Mathis said. “I knew I wanted to go into aviation, and it may sound funny but Navy training is actually more about classical aviation. In the Air Force, you study things like aerodynamics and a lot of engineering. Air Force training is also very structured, where, in the Navy, they kind of put it on a platter and say, ‘Come and get it.’
“For a self-starter like me, that was more in line with the way I liked to do things.”
Mathis was selected to pilot the F18 after completing training in Pensacola. He was halfway across the Atlantic Ocean on the USS America when word came that his skills were needed in Bosnia.
“The bolts were rattling on that ship as we headed full-speed for combat,” Mathis said. “We didn’t even stop once we entered the war zone. We went directly into air combat.”
After a decade in the Navy, Mathis decided it was time to pursue other interests.
“I never fully intended to make the military a career,” he said. “I wanted to fly, and I wanted to serve my country in the cockpit of an airplane. I just didn’t have the taste to make it a career.”
And while he did remain in the Navy Reserves for another decade, going through Top Gun school in Miramar, Calif., and serving as an instructor in Virginia and Florida, Mathis returned home with Dena, a school teacher, and found a new calling in the business world.
“I learned in November of 2003 that the operator of the Moultrie Municipal Airport was retiring, and after I asked around about the position I was encouraged to submit a bid package (to take over the operations),” Mathis said. “I think I may have been the only one to submit a bid, but I got it and started running operations on Jan. 1, 2004.”
Mathis did not step into a particularly promising position.
“I had a hangar at the airport, and I talked with the former operator about the position,” Mathis said. “He told me there was little money to be made, that business was maxed out. But one of the things Dena and I had done over the years as we’d traveled was to catalog the things that got our attention when we flew. Most of it focused on customer service.
“Maybe sometimes it just takes someone dumb enough to try new things, but we basically lived at the airport over the first couple of years as we tried to get things going. We focused on customer service, listened to the things that pilots and passengers said, and we tried to make everything available that they wanted. Maybe we got lucky, but we’ve increased business in Moultrie 3 1/2 times what it was.”
In dealing particularly with hunters who flew into Southwest Georgia for the season each year, Mathis had regular dealings with officials at Albany’s airport. He learned that the nation’s largest fix-base operator, Landmark, which has locations at 44 airports worldwide, was ready to write off the Southwest Georgia Regional Airport as a losing proposition.
“Landmark had a bloated budget in Albany — I think they were trying to operate it the same way they did other, larger airports — and they’d gotten to the point where they pretty much ignored Albany,” Mathis said. “When I talked with officials there about taking over operations, they told me they were losing around $20,000 a month.
“They basically said, ‘If you can make a go there, good on you.’ I put together a package to run operations there and got it. We started Feb. 1 of 2010.”
Mathis did the unexpected when he took over operations at the Albany airport: Lowered fuel costs and gave employees more money.
“We’re not a destination place, so we couldn’t use that kind of model,” he said. “People come through here to quail hunt or to refuel on their way from the Midwest and Northeast to Florida. We started advertising our competitive prices on a fuel-shopping website, and we started getting more of the business.”
And, given Albany and Southwest Georgia’s eminence as the quail-hunting capital of the world, both the Albany and Moultrie airports are regular destinations during hunting season.
“We’ve put tens of thousands of our own dollars into upgrades, and the city of Albany has been gracious enough to renew its interest in helping us provide top-notch facilities at the airport,” Mathis said. “We’ve made significant upgrades, and both (former airport director) Yvette Aehle and David (Hamilton) have helped us make these improvements.”
With Moultrie and Albany operations running smoothly, Mathis now has his eye on perhaps expanding to add to his operations.
“I’m usually the lowest-paid employee at our operations, and I had a former employee ask me once why I did it,” Mathis said. “I hadn’t really thought about it, but when I did I told him, ‘I get the satisfaction of knowing I provide a job that lets you make your car payment, pay your mortgage, go out to eat and have money in your pocket.’ Now I’m not trying to make myself out to be ‘Mr. Noble,’ but that’s part of what drives me.
“I’m also driven by a fear of failure. I’ve failed at major things in my life, so I know what that’s like. It’s important to me, my family, my employees and the cities that we don’t let that happen here.”