Industry Excellence

Each year, NATA recognizes an outstanding array of individuals and organizations demonstrating superior service to the aviation community and advancing a safety-first culture in general aviation. There are nine recipients in all, each introduced on the following pages, representing a broad and diverse spectrum of the general aviation community and the very best of NATA’s members and partners. The awards will be presented on November 2nd during the NATA Aviation Business Conference at the Westin Long Beach in California. Visit for more information on these awards and the Aviation Business Conference.

William A. “Bill” Ong Memorial Award Michael Scheeringa, SAR Trilogy Management

Michael Scheeringa, Managing Director of SAR Trilogy Management, will receive the William “Bill” A. Ong Award, NATA’s highest honor for career service. 

“My first reaction was that I’m undeserving, and my second was that this feels 15 or 20 years premature,” Scheeringa says. “When I first got the news, I said, ‘Really? I thought I was still in the nominating others category!’ I’m 55 years old, and feel I have another 15 years ahead of me to leave an impact worthy of this award, but I am very pleased and very humbled by it.” 

After 13 years with US Airways early in his career, Scheeringa pivoted to the general aviation community with CEO roles at Flight Options from 2004-2008, Signature Flight Support from 2009-2012, and BBA Aviation from 2013-2015. He co-founded SAR Trilogy Management in 2015 with Sanjay Aggarwal to foster investment in aviation, transport, logistics, and travel businesses, leveraging their expertise to create sustainable and profitable growth. 

Scheeringa joined the NATA Board of Directors in 2011 and served as Vice Chairman beginning in 2012, then Chairman beginning in 2013. During his tenure, he was credited with helping the industry navigate long-term lease options for FBOs and other airport tenants at a time when the craze for short-term leases was hampering growth, while helping NATA and its members strategize around big picture plans for long-term success.“ 

I like to think that this award recognizes that I’ve brought to NATA—and to the general aviation segment of our industry—a recognition that we need long-term strategies to ensure our continued relevance in the marketplace,” Scheeringa says. “Regardless of the company I was leading or my own financial interests, I’ve always been corporate agnostic for the industry to be better off. I think that’s probably where this recognition comes from: whether it’s inside the company, or outside on behalf of the industry, I’ve always been about taking long-term views, moving the needle from wherever we were as a baseline, and building a constituency against that. I like to think I received this award because of my strategic aptitude and because of my reputation for successful execution.” 

Scheeringa says he feels fortunate to have helped lead some of the largest NATA members and to have had leadership roles on the NATA Board. “I don’t know that I was interested in executive roles, so much as they happened for me,” he says. “It’s been a very interesting career and a very interesting time in our industry.” 

He says his passion for aviation started early. 

“I started loving aviation when I was six years old,” Scheeringa says. “I can’t tell you why I got an aviation bug—no one in my family was involved in aviation—but all I wanted to do was get on an airplane and then once I got on an airplane, I wanted to go to the airport and watch airplanes take off and land. Coming out of high school, I was going to be an aerospace engineer, but that was short-lived. I ended up moving from the College of Engineering to the College of Business at Arizona State, where I majored in transportation. Midway through my freshman year, I started working part-time at America West Airlines, and I’ve been in aviation ever since. I took my first private lesson in 1987 at Cutter Aviation in Phoenix.” 

From early on, he says, he considered himself “a fix-it guy.” 

“From understanding technology, to understanding math, to understanding principal drivers and building consensus around larger-scale projects, I found myself in leadership roles, just trying to solve problems,” he says. “It created opportunities for me to focus on things like business restructuring and growth, and I was able to help some financially struggling companies in some tumultuous times because of it.” 

He brought that same fix-it mentality to his leadership on the NATA Board. 

“Really it was about setting strategic direction relative to the industry and institutionalizing at a leadership level within NATA’s partnerships across the trade groups,” Scheeringa says. “While I was chairman, we started meetings with the chairs, presidents, and government affairs people from NATA, GAMA, NBAA, ATI all gathered in a conference room in Washington, talking in a non-crisis mode, and asking, ‘How do we move the industry forward?’ That was an exciting time of reinforcing NATA as a player, as a force, as a representative on behalf of an industry, as an equal and participating voice in Washington. Look at the accomplishments, the NATA brag sheet over the last 10 years: now NATA is an active participant and consultant in the legislation that directly affects general aviation. I’m very, very pleased with NATA as a trade association and the respect that both FBOs and charter operators now have in Washington.” 

NATA Distinguished Service Award
Greg Schmidt, Pentastar Aviation

Greg Schmidt—President & CEO of Pentastar Aviation in Waterford Township, Michigan since 2013—will receive NATA’s Distinguished Service Award, one of the organization’s highest annual honors. Schmidt served on the NATA Board of Directors from 2013-2019 in roles including Treasurer, Vice Chairman, and Chairman (from 2017 to 2018).

“I’m humbled and a little taken aback: I’ve seen a list of past recipients of this award and know many of them personally and I’m in great company, to say the least,” Schmidt says. “I’m very happy and appreciative that NATA would recognize me. I’m frankly honored to be a part of the fantastic legacy of NATA and Pentastar Aviation, which has been around for nearly 60 years, and I’m grateful to my colleagues who have recognized the contributions that I have made.” 

Pentastar has been ranked as the #1 FBO in the United States for three consecutive years, 2021-2023, in the annual Aviation International News FBO Survey. This year it was the only FBO in the survey to rank in the top-10 in all five categories: line service, passenger amenities, pilot amenities, facilities, and customer service representatives. The 2023 Professional Pilot Prase Survey ranked Pentastar #2. 

“I’m very proud of our customer service records: we are by far the most-awarded FBO in the country when it comes to the major publications, and that’s because of the dedication of a whole team,” Schmidt says. “I oversee it, but our team members in line service, customer service, catering, and facilities are there day-to-day. We have seen tremendous growth while I’ve been here, probably about 30%. We now have a wide array of services: providing maintenance, charter, running the fixed base operation and catering at the busiest airport in Southeast Michigan—Oakland County International—and managing aircraft. 

“I’m just incredibly proud of the team that we’ve built. We look for individuals who are very dedicated to our mission. To share a little insight, we, as a team, studied a book called The Ideal Team Player by Patrick Lencioni and now use the tenets to hire team members that are humble, hungry, and smart, to help us achieve our goals. We use those criteria to determine whether an individual will be a good fit for our team.” 

Unlike most of this year’s NATA Excellence Awards honorees, many of whom knew from childhood that their futures were in the air, Schmidt says he came late to aviation: he spent the first two decades of his career in the homebuilding industries and had essentially no aviation experience when he was first hired as Chief Financial Officer at Pentastar, which is owned by Edsel B. Ford, II. 

“I would be making it up if I said aviation was always my dream, but I was hired because I had a lot of experience in customer service and doing the right thing when it came to safety,” Schmidt says. “Mr. Ford has a tremendous passion for service excellence, and we saw eye-to-eye on some of the things that I could bring to the company. From the beginning I’ve always felt like I work for an organization that does the right thing by its customers, with a high level of dedication to safety and excellence. I’m not a pilot, so I don’t have the tremendous grasp of all the products and services and types of airplanes that some of the other folks here do, but I’m 100% when it comes to making sure our customers get where they’re going safely—most importantly—and on time, and that we treat them with the highest level of integrity. They spend a lot of money with us, and we owe them a lot in return.” 

Schmidt says he’s also proud of everything he accomplished in his six years on the NATA Board. 

“I think it’s about being willing to be a part of the mission of NATA and being willing to advocate for such a fantastic industry,” he says. “I’ve been involved in a handful of initiatives that the organization and the industry as a whole has worked on, including the FAA Federal Excise Tax assessment that we finally successfully defeated. I had the pleasure of working with Marty Hiller when he was on the board and then president of NATA while I was chairman of the board, and we also introduced an ethics statement on behalf of the NATA membership that I’m proud of. And, more recently, while I no longer serve on the board, I’ve been involved in calls to action like the recent request to push back on an amendment in the FAA Reauthorization that would have unfairly penalized FBOs. I’m very grateful for the people I’ve met through NATA and the time I’ve spent in the organization. I’ve certainly learned more than I’ve contributed!” 

NATA Distinguished Public Service Award
Rep. Sam Graves

United States Congressman Sam Graves (R-MO-6), Chairman of the House Committee on Transportation & Infrastructure, will receive NATA’s Distinguished Public Service Award, sharing the honor with Congressman Rick Larsen (D-WA-2), Ranking Member of the House T&I Committee. 

The award is partly in recognition of their work together to pass the Securing Growth and Robust Leadership in American Aviation Act (H.R. 3935), a bill to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and aviation safety and infrastructure programs for the next five years. 

The bill—which moved out of the committee after a unanimous vote, then received broad bipartisan support with a 351-69 floor vote—marks the first time general aviation has had its own dedicated title in the FAA reauthorization, acknowledging the GA sector as the foundation of the U.S. aviation system. 

“It’s extraordinarily humbling to be recognized by an industry that I care so much about for the things that I have done to try to help the industry,” Graves says. “Probably the thing I’m most proud of is the fact that we’re going to have the very first ever general aviation title in the bill. That elevates general aviation to the level of other aspects of the FAA reauthorization bill, things like the airlines and passenger safety and air traffic control, just emphasizing the critical importance of this sector.” 

The bill also has provisions to improve FAA efficiency and operations, grow the aviation workforce, invest in U.S. airport infrastructure, uphold safety standards, reauthorize the National Transportation Safety Board, encourage innovation in aviation, and enhance the passenger experience. 

“There’s so many good specific provisions in there, like being able to increase AIP, the airport improvement program, to help GA airports,” Graves says. “That included $50 million set aside for the development of GA aircraft hangars and transient ramp parking. We were also able to expand the specifications for basic med-eligible aircraft. And we were able to invest in the next generation of aviators, mechanics, manufacturers, and other aviation professionals by creating the National Center for the Advancement of Aerospace. We’re addressing the ongoing shortage of Designated Pilot Examiners by requiring the FAA to establish a program to provide national coordination. And we’ve done some things in the bill that NATA members are very interested in, like allowing private aircraft owners and operators to be able to block certain flight data again, because it’s an infringement on privacy. Those are just a few of the things that I’m very proud of in the bill, and I’m even prouder of being able to do it on a bipartisan basis.” 

Congressman Graves is one of the strongest allies the general aviation community has ever had on Capitol Hill, a pilot with a passion for aviation that goes back as far as he can remember. 

“I grew up on our farm in Tarkio, Missouri, and the airport sits right in the middle of it: My great grandfather gave land to the city to build an airport right after the war, and Gould Peterson Municipal Airport is named after my uncle,” Graves says. “So my brother and I grew up at the airport and when we weren’t working on the farm, we were down at the airport doing anything we could to mooch a ride—whether that was pumping gas, washing an airplane, cleaning windshields, or sweeping hangar floors. That kind of kick-started everything: getting my pilot’s license and my commercial and then later my Airline Transport Pilot certification, and you know, all of the endorsements that have gone along with that. Getting elected to Congress just further solidified my passion for transportation, especially aviation. It’s in my blood, and has always been part of my life. And I’m very thankful that now, as Chairman of the Transportation Committee, this passion has coincided with the opportunity to work with other members of Congress and have an impact on aviation, particularly general aviation.” 

NATA Distinguished Public Service Award
Rep. Rick Larsen

United States Congressman Rick Larsen (D-WA-2), the Ranking Member of the House Committee on Transportation & Infrastructure, will receive NATA’s Distinguished Public Service Award, sharing the honor with Chairman Graves. 

“I’m honored to receive the award and I’m very honored to receive it with Sam Graves. NATA’s Distinguished Service Award recognizes the work that we’ve both put into developing a bipartisan approach to the bill to get a bipartisan result,” Larsen says. “It took a lot of work to get where we got—it didn’t happen by accident. And we held it together too, both in committee and then on the floor. I think it happened that way because we listened to members and let them have their say and their input. A lot of those members were able to get things in the bill that were important for their districts and their priorities. I’d like to think that’s the way to get things done in Congress it tends not to be these days—but Sam and I have really worked hard to make this committee an island of partnership in a sea of partisanship, and we hope we can continue that.” 

Larsen says his own interest in aviation stems from growing up near Arlington Municipal Airport in his hometown of Arlington, Washington. “They had an annual fly-in and airshow, which was always a great interest of mine, because when I was growing up that was a big thing for us to do: go to the airport on a Sunday afternoon in July for the show.”

Politically, Larsen says his interest in aviation is driven primarily by his constituents. “I try my best to represent my district and we are home to the Boeing Everett Factory, the largest manufacturing building in the world by volume; as a result, I’m the representative for the largest group of Boeing employees, more than any other member of Congress. So that’s one source. But because of that presence, there’s also 1,700 or so aerospace suppliers in the state, and a lot of those are in my district. Again, it’s not limited to women and men who work at Boeing; it goes much broader than that, down to one- or two-person machine shops, to a company in Burlington that does upholstery for airline seats, to other national and international companies located in the area because of the large aerospace ecosystem. So, I’d say that’s where my interest in aviation comes from, directly from the district.” 

Larsen says it was a top priority for him and his colleagues on the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure to put general aviation at the center of the Securing Growth and Robust Leadership in American Aviation Act as they worked to pass the FAA reauthorization bill. 

“Overall, looking at the big picture, general aviation is about $246 billion annually, and about 1 million jobs,” Larsen says. “I know that in Washington state there are about 136,000 people who make up the aerospace workforce. So, I understand the role that GA has played in Washington state and my district, and I think it was a good idea to put some focus on GA. We did that a couple of ways—perhaps most significant was the increase to the Airport Improvement Program, which is tilted toward funding smaller airports. I think it is a strong signal for the general aviation community that this is a bill they can support, and we’re glad to have their support.” 

Airport Executive Partnership Award
Mike Fronapfel, Centennial Airport

Mike Fronapfel, CEO and Executive Director at Centennial Airport/ Arapahoe County Public Airport Authority in Englewood, Colorado, will receive the Airport Executive Partnership Award at the NATA Excellence Awards. 

The award is partly in recognition of his leadership transitioning to unleaded fuel options in partnership with FBO tenants, including jetCenters of Colorado and the Aspen Flying Club flight school. Centennial Airport is the first Colorado airport to make unleaded 94 octane aviation fuel available. 

“It’s a huge honor to be recognized by a national organization like NATA,” Fronapfel says. “I was excited to hear that news has spread about what we’re doing here at Centennial Airport, and I’m hoping that other airports can follow our example. We’re the last industry that uses leaded fuel widely and, because of that, there is a lot of attention and a lot of pressure on the industry to transition. The FAA/industry EAGLE Initiative aims to eliminate leaded aviation fuels in piston-engine aircraft by 2030. From speaking with my community, I know they’re not willing to wait that long.” 

Fronapfel says the airport’s addition of unleaded gas is in direct response to advocacy from his community and from the airport’s board of directors. He is especially honored to be recognized by NATA for airport partnership, he says, particularly around the transition to unleaded fuels, because “partnership” has been the key word in beginning the transition. 

“It really starts with the support of our airport board: in March of this year they signed a resolution committing to the transition to unleaded fuel,” he says. “From there, we worked with our base tenants and flight schools to get the supplemental type certificates for the aircraft, and we told our tenants that we would pay for their STCs through the end of the year. Then we talked to all three of our FBOs about whether they’d be willing to transition their fuel tanks and fuel trucks over to utilize the unleaded fuel. One of them, jetCenters of Colorado, stepped up and said they would be willing to free up a 30,000 gallon tank and one of their fuel trucks to dispense the unleaded fuel.” 

Currently, about 70 percent of aircraft at the airport are eligible to use the 94UL fuel; Fronapfel says unleaded fuel sales now represent 20 percent of all fuel sales at the airport, less than a year after beginning the process. 

“After we could show there would be a market for the fuel because one of our major flight schools, Aspen Flying Club, agreed to get STCs for all their eligible aircraft, jetCenters of Colorado was willing to offer it because they can accept full shipments of fuel at their fuel farm, and they knew they had a customer in place,” Fronapfel says. “The last piece is that we’re subsidizing the cost of the unleaded fuel for the remainder of this year so that it matches the out-the-door cost for 100 Low Lead. Next year it’s likely we will budget to cover that differential, as well. As a result of that, we’ve had pretty good adoption, with about 89 aircraft as of today receiving their STCs—mostly flight school aircraft. And about 20 percent of our overall avgas sales is now unleaded fuel. That’s a really good start for us.” 

Fonapfel says the two other FBOs at the airport, Signature Flight Support and Modern Aviation, are also in discussions to add an unleaded option. 

“It’s inevitable that we’re all going to have to get there at some point,” Fronapfel says. “We think it could be a year or two out before there’s a fully viable 100 octane unleaded replacement for 100 Low Lead, and in the interim we think it’s important to at least start down that path. That’s certainly been the expectation of our community here in Colorado: our community has been exceptionally outspoken on this issue, and it’s been a big concern so we thought the earlier we can start this transition the better.” 

Because there is so much community support for the transition to unleaded fuels, Fronapfel is hopeful that there will also be political willpower to support helping FBOs convert fuel farms. 

“Centennial Airport is very fortunate because we have the resources to subsidize this to a certain degree, but most small GA airports are not going to be able to do the same. So, we’ve been doing is working with both our state and federal representatives to figure out if there are tax breaks that we can provide to help with the transition, or subsidies from either state or federal resources that can help with that transition,” Fronapfel says. “It’s an extremely expensive proposition when you’re talking about buying new fuel farm tanks and new fuel trucks. It’s an important issue and if people want the industry as a whole to transition quickly, I think there’s will need to be financial assistance for FBOs and airports to make that transition.” 

Excellence In Pilot Training Award
Summit Aviation

Ben Walton, Founder and President of Summit Aviation, will accept the Flight Training Award on behalf of Summit Aviation, an award-winning part 141 and part 61 flight school in Bozeman, Montana, that is the exclusive flight training partner for the aviation degree program at Gallatin College-Montana State University. Summit Aviation has become known for developing a jobs pipeline for new pilots. 

“It’s really an honor to receive an award like this,” Walton says. “We’ve put a lot of effort into building a program that provides a good talent feeder into the general aviation space, educating young pilots about all the different career options out there, including general aviation options. It’s an honor to be recognized for that, for sure.” 

Walton is quick to share credit for the award with his team, including Chief Instructor Missy Harlow, Assistant Chief Instructor Bowen Kosovich, and Director of Operations Hall Lewallen. Together, they’ve built a pipeline that begins with introductory discovery flights and leads to today’s flight school students becoming tomorrow’s Certified Flight Instructors, while building hours to become the charter captains of the future, either at Summit Aviation’s private charter operation, elsewhere in the GA community, or with the airlines. 

“Over the last 20 years, we’ve been honored to watch people grow up in aviation,” Walton says. “Say somebody starts when they’re 17 or 18 years old—they have no idea what they’re in for! We watch them get all their ratings. On their first solo, they ring the bell; it’s such a huge day and we make it a huge deal. Then they’re hired as flight instructors, they move up, and we help them find the career that best suits them. Most rewarding is watching our students’ progression: they grow up as people, as aviators, and as professionals. We’re part of people’s aviation journey every day, and we’ve had hundreds and hundreds of students come through our program and go on to successful careers and experiences in aviation. It’s awesome.” 

Walton says one of the things he’s proudest of is creating a work environment designed to promote from within. 

“It’s a great place to work, knowing that we legitimately provide the best flight training in the world,” Walton says. “We’ve got the best instructors; we’ve got Diamond Aircraft—really great airplanes and we’ve got the best training environment with 300 days of sunshine a year here in Bozeman, Montana. Our students also get good mountain flying experience in weather. And we have multiple runways at the airport, with a control tower and approach control, and a mix of traffic that includes a lot of exposure to private aviation. I think we offer something extremely unique because of so many factors, but it’s mainly because we have the best people in the world.” 

Walton also shared big news about the future of Summit Aviation: in August 2023, the company was acquired by TransMedics Group Inc., establishing TransMedics Aviation as the first integrated national provider of air logistics dedicated exclusively to organ transplantation in the U.S. With Walton as Vice President of Aviation Services, TransMedics Aviation will help build and manage a national transplant logistics network. Among other changes, it means pilots in the Summit Aviation pipeline will now also have a direct pathway to careers transporting life-saving organs from donors to recipients. 

Line Service Technician Award
Andrew Fuller, Aero Center Epps Atlanta

Andrew Fuller, PC-24 Supervisor working on the Pilatus PC-12 and PC-24 light business jets at Aero Center Epps Atlanta in Georgia, will receive NATA’s Line Service Technician Award. 

“You like to think you’re doing a good job—your customers are happy, your technicians are happy—but being recognized by NATA for your efforts is something very special,” Fuller says. “It’s an honor. I’ve been working here for 23 years, and prior to that I served 15 years in the Royal Air Force in England, so I’m having a good long career in aviation.” 

While Fuller said he was surprised to get the recognition, he’s proud of the work he does. 

“I think hard work always pays off, and having pride and professionalism in what you do is what puts you up there with the best,” he says. “You’ve got to have a desire to go to work and the desire to do what you want to do. This is not a business where you just come to work and go home. You’ve got to give it your all, all the time, because you’re dealing with people’s lives. So, you’ve got to be 100% safe and 100% sure that you know what you’re doing 100% of the time.” 

Fuller says he’s known ever since he was a child that his future was in aviation. 

“I’ve always had a fascination with aircraft because the main approach to London Heathrow Airport was over my parents’ house, so growing up I always saw airplanes flying in and out of London Airport,” Fuller says. “I thought, ‘One day, it’d be nice to work on airplanes.’ When I left school I thought, ‘Well, let’s try and join the Air Force and see what happens there.’ I wandered into the careers office for the RAF, said I wanted to get into aircraft maintenance, passed all the tests, and within one or two weeks I was whisked off into the Air Force! I worked on Tornadoes, Jaguars, Harriers, big transport aircraft, so I’ve got a broad spectrum of experience with different aircraft. And I just thoroughly enjoyed it. I’d highly recommend it to anyone: if you’re thinking about joining the military, do it. It really is good fun and you meet some good people. I’ve been out of the Air Force for 23 years and I’m still in communication with some of the guys.” 

Considering what this award means 23 years into his career at Epps, Fuller says he’d like to share the recognition with everyone on his team.

 “As you know, it is a team effort,” Fuller says. “We’re renowned for our high quality work here. My guys run the PC-12 and PC-24 crews here, and you could make crew chiefs out of all of them because they’re so versatile. I send them on the road to remote locations throughout the territories we cover in Georgia, Florida, Louisiana, Arkansas, Alabama, and down to the Caribbean islands. I’m able to, at any moment, send the mechanics anywhere, knowing they can do any jobs required of them. Every guy on my team is as deserving of this award as I am. I think that’s the thing I’m proudest of.” 

NATA Future Leader Award
Roman Mendez, Desert Jet Center

Roman Mendez, General Manager at Desert Jet Center in Thermal, California (near Palm Springs) will receive the NATA Future Leader Award. 

He says he was shocked to learn he’d won the award and wanted to learn more about its history. 

“I’ve been part of NATA for many years, and I’ve used their training programs, but I wasn’t aware the organization recognized people in the industry like this,” Mendez says. “I wanted to educate myself on what the NATA Excellence Awards meant, who they recognized, and why. I certainly never got into the industry for this kind of recognition! I got into it for the career opportunities, and now my focus is to help other folks grow, develop, and build careers. I’ll be honest with you: I’m terrible at accepting awards! I’m a big team guy. You’ll see my name on the award, but I’ve been extremely fortunate to have a team that’s very, very driven.” 

Naturally, that attitude is precisely why he’s getting the Future Leader Award. 

“When we opened our doors seven years ago, Desert Jet Center was a brand-new FBO,” Mendez says, of building his team from the ground up. “I had some prior experience with aviation, but a lot of the team that we brought on had very little-to-zero aviation background. Instead, we found folks who were driven, wanted to learn the industry, and had set goals for themselves. We hired more for cultural fit than for experience. NATA supplied the building blocks to give them the training that they needed, like how to properly perform ground operations, go through quality control protocols, do the preventative maintenance…all of which made it easy for me as a leader to say, ‘Team, this is what we’re using to train. But our focus is on building and creating an experience together, for our team and for our customers.’ I’m very proud of having an ambitious team of goal setters.” 

In other words, people who like to learn like he does. 

“Just as I started from the beginning, everyone here starts with fueling aircraft or taking care of reservations. You have to learn to crawl before you can walk; walk before you can run—and learning at all levels is how you start getting opportunity,” Mendez says. “There isn’t any role here that’s too big or too small, no matter the title. I think one thing that’s granted me all these leadership opportunities is that whenever there was a task to be completed, no matter how small, I raised my hand. When there was an opportunity to challenge myself and step outside of my comfort zone and learn and grow, I took that opportunity. I’ve been given the tools to build myself up and to take that next step in my career, which has been awesome.” 

Mendez says he’d like to thank Brad Elliott, the previous general manager, for providing the blueprint for this kind of leadership. 

Safety 1st Certified Line Service Professional Award
Damien Neff, Naples Airport Authority

Damien Neff, Line Supervisor at Naples Airport Authority in Naples, Florida, is the winner of the NATA Safety 1st Line Service Professional Award. 

Neff has spent nearly his entire career in Naples, working his way up through roles including Line Service Technician I, Line Service Technician II, Line Service Technician III, and Duty Officer before landing in his current role. He says the potential for progression and the opportunity to advance in a career is part of what he loves most about general aviation. 

“In other industries, I hear people saying, ‘if you’re not getting a new job every couple of years, you’re not growing or you’re not progressing,’ but I think there is something to be said about finding a good company like Naples Airport Authority and staying and learning,” Neff says. “I started out in line service and then I had an opportunity to grow in my career by taking on additional responsibilities, going to third shift and working the overnight shift with the quality control, the fuel deliveries, and things like that. I came off that shift as a more senior tech on what we call Ramp One, which is like a ramp supervisor, parking aircraft, directing services, and coordinating the outcome of the shift. With that opportunity, I demonstrated my leadership abilities so that when a supervisory position opened, I interviewed for it and got it.” 

Neff says he’s proud of his team’s safety record: airfield safety is the airport’s #1 priority. 

“Even so, it’s definitely a surprise to have NATA take notice of my work and the work our team is doing here,” Neff says. 

He’s also proud of the work he’s doing to bring up the next generation of line service professionals, and he hopes to see the technicians he’s supervising build similarly rewarding careers. 

“We definitely have a lot of the younger generation here just starting their aviation journey, whether in flight training or in line service or as mechanics. I’m a certified A&P mechanic and I’ve also done some pilot training, so I have a broad range of knowledge to share,” Neff says. “It’s exciting being able to share with them the knowledge I’ve picked up specifically here for the FBO and Naples Airport Authority.” 

Neff says his own aviation journey started early. 

When I was just a young kid, my father had a vintage Model A Ford car and we were part of a local Ford club. One of the annual events was Wings and Wheels, where the club took the old cars out to the hills of California and met up with a bunch of people that had older vintage aircraft. It was a weekend of taking the pilots for rides in the cars and then the pilots taking the drivers for rides in the aircraft,” Neff says. “That was the start for my father and for me: he began flight lessons and training back in California, and when we moved to Florida, he finished his private. Then he and I started flying around here, too. So that was the impetus, and I’ve been in aviation ever since, now almost two decades in.” 

He’s excited about new developments at Naples, especially efforts to reduce the airport’s carbon footprint. Naples recently added a UL94 unleaded fuel program, uses electric tugs to move some aircraft, and has two all-electric Ford F-150 Lightning trucks on order. 

“We are working on our carbon footprint and going more green, doing what we can. It’s cool to be at the forefront of that and learning how to do things a little differently.” 


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