ATI Jet Charter Service Aims High
By David Crowder, El Paso Inc.
El Paso has one high-flying charter service. Using Lear jets that take off from El Paso International Airport, ATI Jet hauls Hollywood stars, doctors and business executives around the U.S., Canada and Latin America.
A renowned pilot himself, ATI Jet owner Lyle Byrum has lofty ambitions to turn the company into a national force with a fleet of 100 planes by 2023.
He’s got a ways to go.
Today, ATI Jet has eight, sleek Lears in service, 22 pilots, more than 400 regular customers and a lot more occasional passengers, according to Byrum. That makes the company one of the larger charter services in the Southwest.
“The Lear 60 is the world’s fastest, highest-flying midsize jet,” he said.
It’s an expensive way to get around. Booking one of the eight-seat speedsters for the 3½-hour, 2,000-mile flight to Washington, D.C., and back will cost about $30,000, Byrum said.
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When former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher needed to come to El Paso in 1990 to address the Republican Party, he picked her up in Dallas and says she insisted that he accompany her on the trip back.
“What’s driven our charter business has been security; you don’t have to worry about security,” Byrum said. “No. 2, you can get here five minutes before you want to leave or an hour later. You’re not tied to schedules.”
ATI’s more recent big-name passengers include the queen of Jordan, Tommy Lee Jones, Dennis and Randy Quaid and Julia Roberts, according to Byrum.
ATI Jet’s repeat customers come from just about everywhere – except El Paso.
“We only have 24 customers here in El Paso,” he said. “A few years ago there was a study done and we were No. 3 in the country doing charters to Mexico. A lot of people like to use us because we know our way around.
Byrum talks a big game, but as one close acquaintance said, “He’s the real deal.”
He’s an Ysleta High School graduate whose family owned the second largest crane company in the Southwest in the 1960s and 1970s, Byrum Crane and Rigging. He became its general manager before his parents sold the company.
“I personally erected half of Cielo Vista Mall,” Byrum remembers.
Out of a job, he headed off to college, learned how to fly, became an instructor and took over a flying school and Cessna dealer in Midland. He’s been in aviation since, doing everything from helping the FAA write regulations to performing crazy stunts for movies.
His business ventures also included Quicksilver Enterprises, a publicly held company that became the world’s largest manufacturer of ultralight aircraft from 1980 to 1996, selling more than 12,000 aircraft worldwide.
Byrum made big money doing movies and TV as a Hollywood stunt pilot, stunt man and actor. He has the movie-set publicity photos with stars on the walls at ATI Jet’s headquarters to prove it.
“I think I have been in more movies than any native-born El Pasoan other than Debbie Reynolds, and maybe her,” he said.
Those movies and TV shows include “Arizona Dream” with Fay Dunaway and Johnny Depp, “Jackknife” with Robert De Niro, “CHIPS,” “Fantasy Island,” “A-Team” and “Remington Steel.”
Then, there was “Howard the Duck,” the George Lucas-backed movie that bombed. In that movie, Byrum says he flew a plane through the open doors of a moving boxcar, tearing off the wings.
The rise of computer graphics starting in the 1990s put a big dent in the demand for real air stunts, and after a series of business and personal setbacks, including the loss of his 12-year-old son to cancer, Byrum came back to El Paso.
“I decided I wanted to come home,” he said. “I don’t know why; I can’t tell you. I didn’t do anything for two years.
“Then, I went to work for this company, and then I bought it from Doc. Nelson and the Lowenfields.”
Things were moving along for Byrum and ATI Jet’s small fleet of Lears when he made the mistake of going into business with Bob Jones, the CEO of the nonprofit National Center for the Employment of the Disabled, or NCED, in 2003.
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Jones, a prominent El Pasoan who would later be convicted in the biggest corruption scandal and fraud against the federal government in El Paso history, put up $1 million to gain an interest in the company.
It was supposed to be Jones’ money, but it wasn’t. It belonged to NCED, and the arrangement implicated Byrum and his company when the FBI learned about Jones’ fraudulent investments in 2005.
But the greater fraud occurred at NCED during the 12 years Jones controlled the nonprofit, which existed to provide jobs for the severely disabled under set-aside contracts to manufacture boxes, military uniforms and chemical protective ware.
Under Jones, NCED had grown to 4,000 employees with contracts in excess of $200 million a year when it was reported that the vast majority of its employees weren’t actually disabled.
They were displaced clothing workers, many from Mexico.
In all, the total of misspent federal dollars paid to NCED approached $2 billion, and Jones had amassed a fortune estimated at $50 million. He was convicted in 2011 and is still serving a 10-year sentence in federal prison.
Byrum sued Jones, who had actually gained control of ATI Jet, for stock fraud, provided evidence to the FBI and was cleared of all wrongdoing.
NCED agreed to pay for the bills Jones had run up using ATI Jet to shuttle Army generals and others back and forth from Washington and around the country.
“For three years, he wasn’t paying me for what he was doing,” Byrum said. “The bill just got bigger and bigger. I barely survived.
“After it was all over, I think I was the only guy that got paid back, and I got paid every penny.”
Byrum said ATI Jet has bounced back, allowing him to buy two newer Lear 60 jets recently and to expand by using what he calls the Southwest Airlines model – using one type of aircraft requiring the same parts and training for pilots and mechanics.
He’s also kept up his interest in very fast cars and drag racing, which he still does at the age of 69.
He owns El Paso Motorplex with a dirt track and drag-strip near Socorro where he was planning to add a 2-mile, $2 million paved road course for Formula 1 racing until last year.
“I decided to keep expanding ATI Jet instead, so we put the project on hold,” Byrum said.
Asked if he intends to go public with ATI-Jet to buy 90 more jets and become a national charter service, he said, “I’m planning to, yes – at the right time.”
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