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Meet the guy who repossesses airplanes for a living

Nick Popovich, president of sage-popovichNick Popovich, president of sage-popovich
Nick Popovich, president of sage-popovichCourtesy of sage-popovich

While the airline industry in general is flying high these days, a number of pilots say the rising profits aren’t trickling down to them. Several airlines, including Southwest and Delta, are in the process of working with union negotiators to form new pilots contracts.

To supplement their income, some of those pilots have done a little freelance work on the side—and when you have a skill set as specialized as theirs, airline repossession is a natural fit.

For the work, pilots get anywhere from $500 to $1,700 per day—plus expenses.

But how do pilots get those repo jobs? Usually through someone like Nick Popovich.

Popovich, the president of sage-popovich, is one of the kings of airline repossession. Since 1979, he and his company have reclaimed 1,756 fixed and rotary planes (along with 18 major inventories, 42 engines, and assorted ground service equipment). But as the market has evolved over the past 36 years, he has expanded his business to encompass a litany of other services, including consulting and fleet management. This year, he says, he expects revenues in the $10 million–$12 million range.

When clients decide to go forward with an repossession, Popovich and crew tend to work fast. Beyond his full-time staff of 42, he has 65 full-time contractors (who tend to focus on maintenance). And he has a database of roughly 7,000 pilots he can call on to fly a plane out—covering a broad range of aircraft from Cesnas to 777s.

Most of those pilots work for major airlines. And though it might seem a bit odd to think that the person flying you from New York to San Francisco doubles as a repo man, Popovich says the airlines generally don’t have a problem with it.

“Most of the major airlines do not have a prohibition on flying, as long as it’s not for another airline,” he says. “We work with airlines closely—so if we’re stuck for a pilot, I can call them and say “I need a 777 pilot”.

MORE: Virgin America named best airline for business travel in the U.S.

Step one when the company gets the repossession green light: Create a repo book—a gathering of all necessary legal documents, including power of attorney for the client, affidavit of default, a certified copy of the note and mortgage and such. Then there’s the matter of locating the aircraft.

On good days, the client has maintained a relationship with the owner in default, has copies of the annual inspections and other reports and generally knows where the aircraft will be flying. When it doesn’t, Popovich says he puts out word to airport employees he knows to keep an eye out.

“We have a very extensive network of people that we’ve built over the years,” he says. “We can send an instant message to 30,000 people saying ‘This is the plane we’re looking for’ and oddly enough people call us [and receive a finder’s fee].”

The repossessions themselves take place in ‘self help’ territories—areas of the country and world where repossession experts don’t need to involve the sheriff or marshal in the reclamation process. sage-popovich reps will fly a company aircraft—typically a Challenger 601-3A-ER or Hawker 700A—and land next to the plane being repo’d, then quickly unload and board it. Depending on circumstances, they’ll either tow it away or fly it out—after first notifying police and airport officials that the aircraft was being repossessed.

While repossessions are undeniably the fun part of his job, Popovich says he’s actually advising clients to try to avoid them these days. The secondary market for flying machines has been depressed since 2008, when the Big Three automakers came to Washington, D.C., asking for money and executives found themselves severely criticized for utilizing private aircraft rather than commercial. As the public outrage increased, they were forced to make some changes—changes other big companies emulated.

“They said ‘we’ll sell our airplanes’ and that led to a massive sell-off in corporate America,” says Popovich. “It was catastrophic.”

Since the secondary market has dried up, banks (or private owners) will rack up considerable storage fees for the aircraft, which they may have to simply junk in a few years.

While corporations have certainly stared buying private jets again, they’re opting for newer, more fuel efficient models, Popovich says. And so far, they’ve been pretty good about making their payments.

Popovich, who was the original host of The Discovery Channel’s Airplane Repo program, says he never planned on being a repo man. He wanted to run an airline—and was well on his way to doing so in 1979, working with his bank to arrange financing.

As the negotiations progressed, though, the bank asked if he could help them assess the airworthiness of planes whose owners were in default. After he assessed them and delivered his report, they had another request: Could he get the planes back for them?

He took the gig—and after that first paycheck came in, he made a career course correction.

“I said ‘to hell with the airline, I’m doing this!'” says Popovich.

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