Award-winning fixed base operators share their secrets.
By Melissa Singer
After talking to top performers in Professional Pilot magazine’s 2021 PRASE Survey, there is a wealth of information to share with anyone interested in learning what it takes to become an award-winning fixed base operator (FBO).
Top FBOs are laser-focused on safety, service, preventing/solving issues, and delivering a world-class service experience 24/7. This is no cakewalk.
Servicing a single aircraft involves an almost overwhelming checklist, because communication comes from every direction – from pilots, schedulers, dispatchers, mechanics, line service technicians, customer service representatives, safety experts, weather experts, international handlers, fuel providers, caterers, shuttle drivers, and many more aviation professionals. The sheer number of communications required creates endless opportunities for something to go wrong.
However, when things go wrong, airplanes break, weather happens, and communications break down creating service request failures, FBOs become the command center for fixing issues. There are 2 burning questions the best FBOs ask themselves – “How do we prevent service failures?” And “How do we recover from them quickly to minimize the negative impact on the customer service experience?”
What is the secret to success?
There are many secrets to running a successful FBO. Winners in the Best FBO categories in this year’s PRASE Survey have shared many pieces of advice. Top FBOs attribute their success to 3 important factors – people, process, and technology.
People are the top priority at industry best FBOs. Every business is built by its people and, therefore, is only as good as the people it hires. The hiring process goes beyond a prospect’s experience in aviation.
In fact, multiple FBOs have revealed that personality, passion, drive, and company service culture outrank aviation experience when it comes to hiring.
Aviation experience is always a plus, but aviation and FBO operations are skills that can be trained. On the other hand, passion, drive, and the desire to serve people are not.
However, great leaders inspire their people to feel passion and drive toward a goal or vision that creates the service culture of a company. Today’s FBOs are far more than just aircraft fueling stations.
Furthermore, customer expectations escalate year after year. Customers expect higher levels of service, elevated product quality throughout their customer experience, and more technology and connectivity than ever before for both people and aircraft.
Keeping the best people
Hiring the best people is only the first part of the equation. The other part is keeping them. Award-winning FBOs have a common formula. Once they hire the ideal employee, the investment in training begins.
The best FBOs are training 3 things in the following order of priority:
1. Company history and service culture.
2. General aviation (GA) and how to do the job.
3. The jobs the rest of the team are doing and how these relate to the new employee’s job. This training investment is successful for 3 reasons.
First, all employees want to be proud of where they work and to feel valued, while learning about the company’s history fosters an understanding of the past, a sense of belonging to the present, and an opportunity to shape the company’s future.
Companies that have a well-articulated service culture are able to define the expectations of their employees to deliver exemplary customer service. Second, every human wants to do a good job and be praised for his/her work. FBO employees need to understand GA operations of the FBO.
They also want to receive quality training on how to do their job. It’s the FBO’s responsibility to give its employees feedback on their performance, holding them accountable for executing the FBOs service culture standards. A formal on-boarding process for new employees is in the DNA of every best-in-class FBO.
Third, for employees to play like a team, they need to know who is on the team and what jobs they perform. An introduction to the team can be as simple as a tour to put faces with names, and to learn where people work and what they do.
Best players in the field
Signature Aviation boasts 3 of the top 5 FBO reps recognized in Pro Pilot’s 2021 PRASE Survey – Pat Walter (Best Line Tech, MSP [Intl, Minneapolis–St Paul MN]), Annette Torgerson (Best CSR, MSP), and Sandy Tachovsky (third Best CSR, STP [St Paul MN]).
Asked about the secret to his people’s consistent performance, Signature Aviation Area Director Clint Kummer points out that they’re methodical, organized, and detail-oriented experts who excel at developing connections with customers.
Texas Jet FTW (Meacham, Fort Worth TX) is celebrating wins for #1 Best Independent US FBO and second Best CSR – Holly Hopkins. “The foundation of Texas Jet’s success is our culture of excellence,” shares Pres and CEO Reed Pigman. “Holly, our customer service manager, and I began our investment into this culture when, 15 years ago, we went to Chevy Chase MD to train at the Ritz-Carlton Leadership Center.
We soon discovered that it’s fine to have great customer service training, but if we didn’t have an underlying culture where management and team members treat each other with respect, we couldn’t expect a team member to take care of the customer and form emotional bonds with them.
Our team members become micro brands, so when a pilot flies into Texas Jet, they look forward to those employees being here.” Asked about Business Jet Center DAL (Love, Dallas TX) ranking in the top 10 independent US FBOs, Chief Experience Officer Cat Wren says, “Business Jet Ctr DAL continues to be humbled by its ratings in the Pro Pilot PRASE surveys. We measure our success by our customers’ experience.
We are dedicated to providing a truly vibrant and personalized aviation experience built on trusted service through a humble heart and a family-spirited atmosphere. We ride high knowing our special group of people don’t just get the job done, but are driven to perform their duties with a servant’s heart. Since the beginning, our team has understood superb customer service comes from not just providing a service, but a journey.
Our best practices reside in our vision, where we are trusted for our safe and exceptional service, valued for our dedication to relationships, and remembered for our vibrant personality. These are the keys that set Business Jet Ctr apart.”
Process creates consistency. Consistency creates reliability. And reliability builds loyalty. Driving customer loyalty is the highest priority for top performing FBOs. Who creates the FBO process? Its people, of course. Many times, customer service discussions start with what happens inside the FBO.
We are going to flip the script and start outside on the ramp, because year after year the most common complaint across the FBO industry from pilots is that no one was on the ramp to marshal and greet their aircraft. FBOs are often shocked when they hear this, given how important marshaling the aircraft is for both safety and the service experience.
FBOs have numerous best practices and processes in place when it comes to marshaling and ramp management, but there is an industry-best process that ensures the marshaling safety and service experience happens without fail. Andrew Swain, operations manager at Wilson Air CHA (Chattanooga TN) – Best US FBO 2021 – shared their process for ensuring that the aircraft marshaling and customer arrival experience are consistent, simple, and reliable, and that they create customer loyalty.
Wilson Air CHA’s best practices include having the ramp manned 24/7. More specifically, the company has a role Swain describes as “eyes and ears on ramp.” Anyone at the FBO can actually be assigned the role because everyone gets trained for it.
Having the role becomes of great importance during high demand times and peak travel season. Even someone from accounting can get called into action to be the eyes and ears on the ramp, where their sole purpose is to see and communicate when an aircraft is inbound (in the air) or approaching the ramp, so that the troops can mobilize and prioritize.
This is teamwork exemplified. Operational processes like this, which are second nature to an FBO team, allow them to operate successfully under every condition, especially in a natural disaster. With numerous industry awards to its credit, Odyssey Aviation is consistently voted Best Caribbean FBO. Odyssey Aviation NAS (Nassau, Bahamas) also earned the Paragon Aviation’s Member of The Year 2019 award when the base handled just short of 900 flight operations in the 14 days following Hurricane Dorian.
Paragon Aviation is a network of more than 100 elite FBOs in 23 countries. Great service is also a defined process. Award-winning FBOs like Wilson Air and Million Air share their service strategy right on their company websites.
With its hospotality-based heritage, Wilson Air has won Best FBO – Small Chain for 14 consecutive years! Founder Kemmons Wilson’s 20 Tips for Success is worth the visit to wilsonair.com for anyone wanting to up their service game.
Meanwhile, Million Air’s powerful, positive culture is a product of its people’s love of aviation and hospitality, where customers are even called guests. Million Air has been voted Best Large FBO Chain repeatedly over the years.
The best FBOs are innovators and early adopters of technology. Whether it is operational or product technology, FBOs leveraging innovations are keeping their operations and service experience dynamic for customers – and there is no shortage of technology related to FBO operations.
Companies like Avman and X-1FBO are newer in the market, and have brought modern software and user-friendly features that are innovative to the operational and service experience. Avman introduced a comprehensive aviation software solution for companies that want true accounting integration and have multiple aviation businesses in their portfolio, with flight school, MRO, charter, and hangar and real estate management capabilities. X-1FBO and FlightBridge, on the other hand, collaborated to innovate FBO point-of-sale and logistics booking technologies.
FlightBridge describes itself as a technology platform connecting customers to aviation partners and vendors who provide the world of GA with “a better way to work together.” Using technology, ground service providers have innovated logistics, services, communication, and delivery experience.
Technology is also innovating management of customer experience with FBO products and amenities. Business Jet Center DAL, for example, was the first US FBO to install the Smartwell designer water system by Elkay, a water delivery products supplier best known in aviation for its water bottle filling stations found at FBOs and airports worldwide.
The Smartwell system allows customers to design all-natural flavored sparkling or still water with enhancements like electrolytes and Vitamin C. Using similar operations, technology-savvy Astraea has introduced a luxury customer experience for hand sanitizer stations. The Astraea pedal hand sanitizer is fully mechanical, requires no maintenance or electrical outlets, and can be branded and used for digital marketing messaging.
People, process, and technology are the secrets to FBO operations and service success, and the best FBOs are industry leaders in all 3 areas.
Melissa Singer is the CEO and founder of Moxie Global Consulting. She served as senior director of brand extension for Signature Flight Support, and has held senior leadership positions with Flight Options/FlexJet and the Walt Disney Co.