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When you’re hot- you’re hot - at least- that’s the cliché. But it’s not much in the way of a cliché when you speak of Duncan Aviation- the Nebraska-based business aviation service company that’s been on a streak of earning business and industry laurels for years – including several times this year.

Dave Higdon   |   1st August 2003
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Dave Higdon Dave Higdon

Dave Higdon writes about aviation from his base in Wichita Kansas. During three decades in...
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Duncan Aviation on a hot streak with awards to show for employees’ efforts.

When you’re hot- you’re hot - at least- that’s the cliché. But it’s not much in the way of a cliché when you speak of Duncan Aviation- the Nebraska-based business aviation service company that’s been on a streak of earning business and industry laurels for years – including several times this year.

Then again- after more than a decade of the name “Duncan Aviation” routinely appearing on some of the best of business aviation’s “best-of” lists- maybe “hot streak” is a cliché where this network of top-flight service centers is concerned.

Worth some particular reflection are the multiple appearances on lists for best maintenance services and best avionics services – laurels the company has again received in multiple layers this year- as it has for most of the past 15 of its 46 years.

But the key to Duncan Aviation’s decades of success may well be best reflected in a prize received in February- 2002. That’s when Duncan appeared as number 30 on Fortune Magazine’s annual list of the top 100 best employers. That’s an award that reflects as much on the professionalism- satisfaction and loyalty of Duncan’s 1-864 staff members as on the management style of second-generation company chairman Robert Duncan- and its president Aaron Hilkemann.

The combination of quality product – reflected in the customer-voted inside-the-industry recognition – and the high-quality workplace Fortune highlighted helps Duncan aviation stay ahead of its competitors- as do a variety of services and service locations that help keep Duncan in the minds of customers: And that’s where Duncan’s business philosophy and management style come into play.

Many services- one tradition

Many of today’s most successful business aviation service outlets started life as a family owned enterprise and Duncan reflects that heritage. Started in 1956 as a distributor for Beech Aircraft- Duncan evolved into North America’s largest family owned aircraft service provider.

The growth reflects an ongoing philosophy of investing heavily in the industry and community. Duncan dollars go into expanding and improving facilities- in creating new products and services for its customers- in developing new processes that benefit the business aviation community. Perhaps most importantly- Duncan invests in its people- underwriting the continuing education of staff with money- with flexibility and with opportunity.

The result? A company that’s grown from selling and servicing the Bonanza- Twin Beech- Duchess and more- to a broad-based maintenance and refurbishment conglomerate servicing virtually all of the business aviation inventory: Astras to Westwinds- Citations- Learjets and Beechjets- Hawkers and Falcons- Challengers and Gulfstreams.

Duncan offers major maintenance and more at its ancestral home in Lincoln- Nebraska- with more than 430-000 square feet of space on hand. Duncan added another 200-000 square feet by expanding to Battle Creek- Michigan in 1998.

Meanwhile- at nearby Kalamazoo- Michigan- Duncan operates a line-service facility in parallel with a regional support/turboprop maintenance shop.

There is- of course- more – as usual with a company as deep into business aviation as Duncan. The company also offers 30 years of experience in charter operations; Duncan operates a parts brokerage business for customers with excess inventory; there’s also an aircraft sales unit that helps match customers with the right airplane for their needs.

Duncan also offers major engine maintenance- interior and paint design and installation services as well as components services. There are 19 government C-23 contract sites scattered around the country- and Duncan Aviation boasts of another 17 satellite avionic facilities. It’s in avionics where Duncan’s service seems deepest.

Building a best-of business

Duncan Aviation’s 30th place showing in Fortune Magazine’s fifth annual “100 Best Companies to Work For” assessment is the second appearance by the business aviation service company. Last year- Duncan placed 62nd on the list- making this year’s appearance both a repeat performance and an improved showing.

Company chairman J. Robert Duncan called this year’s Fortune recognition “especially gratifying for me and my family.”

“As owners of a family business-” Duncan continued- “it has always been important to us that the values we hold sacred are not compromised in the interest of growth and profits.”

That feedback from outside the aviation community helps confirm what Duncan customers have long told the company: the organization is special and the team members who staff it “are the best in the industry”.

“We have always recognized that our employees are our best competitive edge-” Aaron Hilkemann- Duncan President stressed. “Now we believe in that philosophy more than ever.

“We believe it is as important to commit to our employees in tough times as well as in good times. Our inclusion on this list shows we are still doing that.”

Among the more innovative- even unique employee-oriented programs Duncan maintains are; a unique- work culture in which the company tries to show its value for employees with frequent and impromptu employee appreciation parties- employee/family parties- catered lunches- even management-staffed cookouts.

Additionally- there are inducements for the staff to continue learning that runs deep enough to produce an annual per-employee average of 40 hours in new training and education. In the year 2000 alone- Duncan invested more than $2 million in continuing technical education for employees thanks- in part- to a program of full tuition reimbursed for applicable college classes.

The company also recognizes the benefits of having employees who understand aviation from the pilot’s perspective with a flight training program that reimburses employees as much as $2-500 toward their private pilot licenses – plus another $2-500 for those who go on to earn an instrument rating. Naturally- the company acknowledges that pilot training is not required to fill most posts- but Duncan and Hilkemann recognize that knowing how to fly helps staff members better relate to customers- as well as increasing “their enjoyment in life-” as the company puts it.

Duncan’s in-house wellness programs encourage a healthy lifestyle by rewarding staffers for involvement in activities and practices that contribute to an overall sense of wellness. Putting its money where its mouth is- Duncan’s Lincoln and Battle Creek facilities offer on-site exercise facilities.

The resulting staff dedication has pushed Duncan to the top in customer service polls for maintenance and avionics services – and not just the company at-large- but at individual Duncan locations as well.

Like we said- with 17 avionics locations- it’s little wonder that Duncan Aviation stands out in the minds of customers as an avionics service leader. Yet there are more than 7.5 million reasons other than location to explain why Duncan enjoys such a solid reputation for its avionics expertise – the $7.5 million loaner program which combines with reach to make Duncan’s avionics shops customer rich.

Nothing wins fans like action and Duncan complements its depth in avionics expertise with a loaner program created to reduce aircraft down time to the absolute minimum.

In fact- the company’s avionics expertise routinely wins awards from the business aviation professionals who fly and maintain the nation’s fleet.

For the 18th straight year- Duncan’s Lincoln avionics shop was voted the top avionics center in the United States. Additionally- Duncan’s Battle Creek shop ranked second again this year and Duncan’s Teterboro shop earned the number-three spot.

There are reasons why – about $7.5 million worth of reasons alone in avionics spares - Duncan maintains in its loaner program. With so many sophisticated parts on-hand- Duncan’s customers can quickly receive what’s needed to end an AOG problem.

In fact- Duncan takes the issue of grounded business aircraft so seriously that it operates a dedicated AOG service team – as well as regular night and weekend shifts at its larger facilities. That effort includes about 170 avionics and instrument repair technicians who keep the maintenance bench staffed almost around the clock.

Duncan also invests in keeping its technicians up to speed on the latest technologies – technologies of increasing complexity and sophistication. As a result- Duncan’s staff can inspect- install- troubleshoot and repair equipment of virtually every type- regardless of its manufacture.

Duncan keeps the OEM front covered by maintaining service center and dealer status with Collins- Honeywell and J.E.T./B.F. Goodrich- S-Tec- Century- Garmin and more. Little wonder Duncan customers so regularly reward the avionics support teams with such high praise.

charter- pre-owned- etc...

Duncan Aviation’s Charter Service provides the level of professional service and equipment comparable to many a dedicated charter operator thanks to a 30-year history of matching needs to


Regardless of the destination- Duncan’s premier-level service provides the scheduling flexibility needed to make a specific destination at a convenient time- quickly and cost-effectively.

The company also offers a service called JetResources- designed to aid those who wish to purchase a pre-owned aircraft. The service has been geared up to assist the client in locating the right aircraft for their personal requirements.

Indeed- the company employs five representatives who have a daily involvement in the market- thereby having numerous useful contacts. Between them- Duncan’s five representatives have a history of 3-000 aircraft transactions. Armed with legal expertise and closing knowledge- Duncan believes that it has a team capable of helping people make exceptional purchase decisions based on the market and their specific needs.

Duncan applies high standard ideas to other aspects of its business- including communicating with customers. Duncan’s in-house services give customers up-to-date product and service insights.

If a visit to Duncan Aviation’s Website (www.duncanaviation.com) reminds you of opening a newspaper- you enjoy a lot of company. In fact- the opening page offers useful information to both the first-time visitor and veteran client- alike. And the homepage offers only a hint of the depth of Duncan Aviation’s customer information organs.

For example- the homepage leads the visitor to several other information tools- including the in-house produced Duncan Intelligence. These newsletters- available online and as hard-copy- provide up-to-date information regarding specific airframes- engines and parts and are produced for specific aircraft makes and models.

Duncan produces issues focused on: IAI aircraft- including the Astra/Westwind/G100; Learjets and Citations; Hawkers and Falcons; even turboprop operators. Other editions focus on the Honeywell TFE731 and Pratt & Whitney Canada JT15D engines.

Each newsletter includes maintenance tips- bulletin updates and other information of importance to the owners or operators of these different pieces of hardware.

Duncan ties together all its business lines in the print-oriented “Duncan Debrief-” a 28-page magazine loaded with details about the latest expansions and new services the company offers. The Debrief also deals with industry issues and other items of potential interest to business aircraft operators.

Additionally the company offers customers periodic Intelli-Conferences- workshops on operating issues of importance to its customers that are created and delivered by Duncan’s in-house experts. The next is due to occur on October 1st at Lincoln.

Duncan’s AVPAC

One specialized Duncan Intelligence e-mail edition focuses solely on the Duncan Aviation Parts and Components Network- or AVPAC.

AVPAC is Duncan Aviation’s in-house parts-sourcing organization- created to help clients control their operating costs by giving them a vehicle for obtaining parts- evaluating the worth of- or even selling off un-needed inventories of parts.

Duncan formed the AVPAC network in the early 1980s and in the 20 years since- the operations has compiled a huge inventory of general aviation parts including avionics- rotables and components. The combination of parts and components amassed through the years is unlike any other in the industry- the prices are highly competitive.

Indeed- to keep the inventory deep- AVPAC employs its own team of more than a dozen technical parts experts to seeking out the rarest parts- quickly.

Located on the west side of the Lincoln Airport- across from Duncan Aviation’s Lincoln facility- AVPAC resides in a newly remodeled 44-000 square foot facility that was designed with efficiency in mind.

AVPAC can help customers come up with parts that need overhaul before further service – and tap another Duncan operation to perform the overhaul or installation. Of course- access to AVPAC also helps Duncan’s service centers deliver a high level of service at attractive prices.

Building a business

With a philosophy that puts humanity on the same level as capitalism- Duncan Aviation may appear something of a rarity in a business world rocked by executive scandals and corporate greed.

From the company founded by Donald Duncan in 1956 to the one run today by his son- Robert- Duncan Aviation has managed to grow and thrive while treating staff with importance- rather than mere cogs in a great aviation machine and still provides service value that keeps customers coming. As you can see- the difference shows in how highly Duncan is regarded and how successful the company has become.

It’s also apparent in the desirability of Duncan team leaders and team members to other companies. Some Duncan expatriates answered the challenge of leadership from other companies- going on to successful- fulfilled tenures elsewhere. Many an industry insider watches for a Duncan staff member considering a career change.

It’s seldom worth holding one’s breath – you could turn blue awaiting the departure of a Duncan employee. That’s good news for Duncan customers counting on the family-business tradition of continuous improvement continuing for years to come.

That level of quality and value makes it easy for Duncan customers to return and bring new fans with them.


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