American Comebacks: Solairus Aviation

Born out of bankruptcy, Solairus Aviation has soared through a turbulent economy to emerge as a player in the highly competitive world of private charter aircraft and aviation asset management. In just two years, CEO and founder Dan Drohan has led his company to nearly 100 percent annual sales increases, with total revenue expected to exceed $85 million in 2011.

An experienced transport-rated pilot in his own right, Drohan was originally the owner of Sunset Aviation Inc., based in Petaluma, Calif. The company began doing air tours in 1992 and evolved into a management and charter business by the time Drohan sold it during difficult economic times to JetDirect in 2007.

In the darkest days of the charter aircraft business, JetDirect bit off more than it could chew. In addition to running up against an industry changing at warp speed, the undercapitalized company handicapped itself completing 10 acquisitions in three years. By 2008, JetDirect was bankrupt and could not pay its creditors.

After being told he wouldn’t be paid for 50 percent of the business, Drohan stepped back into the fray. In an effort to take the business back, Drohan created Sunset Aviation LLC, with the intent of purchasing the assets of Sunset Inc. back from JetDirect.

But he soon realized the secured creditors of JetDirect were not in a giving mood. So, in early 2009, Drohan advised JetDirect he was no longer interested in pursuing the transaction.

He nonetheless felt compelled to bring the business back to life, launching a new management company rebranded in June 2009 as Solairus Aviation.

“With JetDirect gone, I truly believed that I had let down a lot of people by allowing their destinies to get tied up with a company that was so poorly run,” says Drohan from his Petaluma office.

But those people, formerly with Sunset Aviation Inc. and now out-of-work JetDirect employees, proved loyal—and critical to the new company’s survival. Drohan sent out 65 job offers to them, with not a dime of revenue or a single client in hand. These employees knew the business and had client contacts which, within days of starting up, enabled Solairus to procure a fleet of aircraft owned by clients who make them available for third-party charters. Client contacts and top industry people were the keys to a seamless transition. They were up and running right away. Today, Solairus Aviation employs nearly 300 people. “I’m lucky to have surrounded myself with people a lot brighter and smarter than me. Instead of having a big team led by good people, I have a great team of people led by fantastic managers,” Drohan says.

Getting the new business off the ground began with the philosophy, “If we build it, they will come.” With the belief that the strength of relationships between clients and employees is a key element to success, Drohan has a sticker on his letter opener tray reading, “Willingness without action is fantasy.”

The management and charter airline industry is still well below pre-2007 levels, but Drohan has seen “a significant uptick in aircraft acquisitions in the last eight to 10 months. This allows for growth without having to take business from each other.”

In addition to strong client relationships, two other factors have helped Solairus thrive: the failure of JetDirect, and to a certain degree, the resurgence of “financial road shows.” Companies seeking money and support in anticipation of going public need to charter planes to make calls on potential investors; as the economy improves, they’re increasingly chartering Solairus planes to conduct these intense, fast-paced “road shows.”

Solairus’ key to maintaining a good working relationship is communication. “It’s the single most important element of our entire business, not just with our clients,” Drohan says. “Ninety-five percent of the problems we have are a result of communication: too much, too little, not the right timing. It’s uncanny.”

With a fleet of more than 40 luxury-filled aircraft, and plans to expand to 60 by the end of this year, Solairus offers door-to-door service throughout the world. “We consider ourselves an aviation management business. More than anything, we are advocates for our clients. We pass through expenses to our clients with zero markup,” Drohan says.

Each aircraft has an assigned crew, with one team member designated as the client aviation manager. That person oversees the team assigned to the account and acts on the company’s behalf as the “relationship manager” with the client. “We are not the cheapest,” Drohan says, “but I believe wholeheartedly that we are the best at what we do.”

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