Vice President and COO Dent Thompson said the U.S. State Department put out a call for solicitations approximately one week before the games began on Feb. 7. Phoenix was awarded the contract on Jan. 31 and on Feb. 2 the company discovered they were carrying the presidential delegation for the opening ceremonies.
Commercial air carriers were needed, Thompson continued, because the Russian government would not allow any foreign military aircraft into Russian airspace. In addition, the Russian government required all air crews to have a business visa rather than the easier to obtain tourist visa.
Phoenix was able to put together a proposal so quickly, Thompson explained, because the company had previously been compiling a proposal for operating air ambulances out of Sochi International Airport during the games.
“But this is what Phoenix Air does,” Thompson said. “We’re like the 911 of air companies when it’s a pretty big deal and you’ve got to get there and you have very little time. We’ve got so many contacts around the world that we’re able to pull a lot of these things off in record time.”
In 72 hours, according to a Phoenix Air press release, the company was able to get all the necessary approvals that ordinarily take weeks, and the flight crew received their visas when the aircraft landed at Andrews Airforce Base, Md. When the plane took off on schedule, it was carrying President of the University of California Janet Napolitano, Assistant to the President and Deputy Chief of Staff for Policy Robert Nabors, Olympic figure skating gold medalist Brian Boitano, Olympic women’s ice hockey silver and bronze medalist Caitlin Cahow and a State Department protocol officer.
Once the officials were taken to Sochi, the Phoenix crew then flew to Ankara, Turkey, the release said, as Russian officials would not allow aircraft to stay on site due to limited ramp space. After the opening ceremonies, the delegation was flown back to the U.S.
After receiving the closing delegation contract, Phoenix Air flew Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, International Tennis Hall of Fame inductee and Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient Billie Jean King, five-time Olympic speed skating gold medalist and one-time bronze medalist Bonnie Blair, five-time Olympic speed skating gold medalist Eric Heiden and a state department protocol officer to Sochi for the ceremony.
The flights to Sochi are similar to other work Phoenix has done for the U.S. government, Thompson said, though the time frame was much tighter. Three years ago, he added, the company flew then-Senator John Kerry back and forth from Africa during the negotiations to create South Sudan.
“We were at the time working for United States Africa Command, operating all over Africa, and we were assigned to John Kerry. So we flew him between Europe, Sudan and what would become South Sudan constantly for like a three- or four-month period. I mean not every day, but he would come and go and he’d go back to Washington and come back and board our jet. We were his office, for lack of a better word, during the entire period those countries were dividing and reestablishing themselves on the world scene,” Thompson said.
Approximately three weeks ago Phoenix transported a State Department security team to the Central African Republic ahead of U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power’s trip to the nation.
“We took in all of her security team prior to her arrival, and in fact we sent two jets of heavily armed State Department security officers to set up a secure environment and she came in on an Air Force jet,” Thompson said. “... So we get involved. We work directly for the State Department. We work directly for the Defense Department on the movement of a lot of these type things.”
Phoenix Air’s advantage in acquiring such government contracts, Thompson explained, is the company’s in-house analysts who examine the risks of flying into parts of the world experiencing conflicts and determining the safest routes.
“We’ve got a lot of specialized training. We have some special permits that allow us to go into certain areas that other folks aren’t allowed into. Then we have a very strong intelligence gathering group inside of Phoenix Air that does analysis of threat environments and figure out how we’re going to do it safely, and put the whole trip together,” Thompson said. “A lot of that is former miliary people, so Phoenix Air becomes sort of like the whole package at various federal agencies. They can come to us and say we need to do A, B, C and then within a very short time period we tell them exactly how we can do the air side of it, and then they sign us up and away we go.
“ ... Other companies would have to make contact with assorted federal agencies to try to figure out what’s going on. We — because of the type [of] work we do — we have that expertise in-house and we have relationships with assorted agencies where we’re not calling the receptionist telling her what we want. We’re calling the top people in the country on knowing what’s going on and getting their ideas and their input. Then we put together a ... risk analysis plan, because at the end of the day you’re risking your employees, you’re risking your airplane and you’re risking an international incident, so you have to make a calculated risk assessment that we’re comfortable with.”