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Best FBO practices


Award-winning fixed base operators share insights for retaining talent, making team members feel valued, and driving corporate culture.

By Melissa Thomas
Contributing Writer

Million Air’s powerful, positive culture and love of aviation across its self-described “families of FBOs” once again garnered the company top ranking as Best Large FBO Chain.

FBOs operated through some of the most challenging times over the past 2 years. And although higher demand is now evident, those previous 2 years brought with them a multitude of challenges for FBOs and the vendors supporting them.

Nevertheless, through it all, leading ground service providers found ways to innovate and conquer the top of Professional Pilot magazine’s 2022 PRASE Survey.

In conversations with several of this year’s PRASE winners, it is evident that their success is driven through a combination of savvy leadership, hard team work, and sheer will to succeed for their customers, their team members, and the entire aviation community.

Summarizing, it all comes down to people and leadership! Early 2020 taught leaders how to manage through shutdowns due to the Covid-19 pandemic. For most companies, this meant laying people off to brace for the foreseeable economic consequences. In 2022 the challenge is different – hiring and retaining talent to meet the current high demand for flying private.

Award-winning FBO leaders have shared with Pro Pilot that they have 3 main success drivers in common. First, leadership is continuously measuring and improving industry talent retention metrics.

Second, leadership is engaged top down with a hands-on approach to understanding what makes their team members feel valued.

And third, leadership articulates the organization’s corporate culture and brand identity with authenticity. In short, award-winning FBOs have savvy, engaged, and authentic leaders at the helm. While FBOs concur in these 3 success drivers, leaders in different organizations approach them in unique ways.

This makes sense, because people’s leadership styles are influenced by their life and work experiences, as well as their personalities. No single leadership style is the only way to achieve success.

Great leaders adjust their management styles to motivate each team member through each situation in individualized ways. Here are award-winning insights learned from winning aviation leadership professionals.

Having swept top honors in the Best US & Independent FBO, Best Line Tech, Best CSR, and Most Improved FBO categories, Monterey Jet Center attributes its positive customer recognition to the continuous investment in its people and facilities. The brand-new FBO facility opened in 2021.

Talent retention

Independent, small chain, and large chain FBOs, as categorized in Pro Pilot’s PRASE Survey, all measure talent retention through various key metrics that target understanding employee turnover, engagement, and satisfaction.

While wages are important and need to be competitive, it is not primarily industry wages that are driving negative turnover rates or having a positive effect on employee retention. For many employees, it is even more important to have a combination of schedule flexibility, great benefits, the ability to make a difference, an engaging corporate culture/leadership, and the opportunity for career growth.

A commitment to regular employee surveys is a must. At minimum, an annual survey is commonplace among interviewed PRASE Survey winners. Brian Corbett, CEO at Ross Aviation, reports that his company conducts twice-yearly workplace satisfaction surveys to stay in close touch with their team members.

In addition, they hold all-hands virtual meetings, regular in-person executive visits, and meetings with all general managers at individual locations. There is no substitute for consistently scheduled communication opportunities between company leaders and their team members.

Cutter Aviation Director of Marketing and Communications Genaro Sanchez agrees that, for employees, it isn’t always about the money. “Employees want to feel like they matter, are important, and that their opinions count,” he adds. Being part of an organization where employees can make real change and have the ability to grow increases the levels of corporate pride and loyalty.

With private travel demand so high, many general managers across the industry connect with their staff by working side by side with team members to do whatever is necessary to provide customers with the luxury brand experience they expect.

Standard Aviation, located in St Thomas VI, was voted the Best Caribbean FBO. General Manager Sabina Rosario believes that the most important thing she does as a leader is to participate in every activity she can with her team. “I work shifts at the front desk alongside our customer service representatives, and also fuel aircraft with the line team when needed,” she relates.

Meridian, Teterboro’s independent FBO, once again receives accolades in the Best Independent and Best US FBO categories.

“In terms of retaining outstanding team members, I believe it resonates with them when leaders are willing to do any job at the FBO, and not just delegate from an office.” FBO vendors experience the same workforce and business challenges as FBOs. Mike Linder, owner at Silver Lining, voted Best Catering for Aviation – South in the 2022 PRASE Survey, weighs in on retaining talent.

“We retain talent because we have created a strong team over the past 25 years, placing each and every team member in the best position where they best excel. We do not allow our team members to fail,” he adds. “We have successfully retained our top talent, from my partner Mitch and brother Matt, along with Neal, John, Executive Chefs Zach, Luis, and Victor, Customer Service Supervisor Karen, and many other important team members who have worked here together for more than 10 years – and some since the company’s inception.”

Linder also agrees that management involvement in day-to-day activities pushes everyone to do their best, helps make best decisions, and contributes to understanding and delivering what the team needs in real time to be successful.

A team member’s value

Volunteer time-off opportunities are an innovative flexible employee benefit offered by Sheltair Aviation, recognized as the #2 Best Large FBO Chain.

Monterey Jet Center won multiple categories in the PRASE Survey this year, including Best Independent US FBO, Best Line Tech (Jason Gray), Best CSR (Kawai Lopez), and Most Improved US FBO. GM Matthew Wright and CSR Kawai Lopez say there were many drivers for Monterey Jet Center in 2021, including the investment in a brand-new FBO facility.

Both team members speak with pride about their organization and working together with their team mates. The old adage that says, “Take care of your employees and they will take care of your customers” is summed up by Kawai Lopez. “Jason – voted Best Line Tech – has been with the company for 21 years, and I have been here for 15 1/2, which is basically our entire adult lives.

Monterey Jet Center has seen both of us go through so many life events, like kids being born, parents passing, and illnesses, and the company has always been there to help us get through it. As crazy as it sounds to some, this is like a second home for us both.”

The longevity of the Monterey Jet Center team is not due to chance. Instead, it’s an outstanding example of team members feeling so valued that they believe in and operate the FBO as if it were their own company. The investment that Monterey Jet Center made in its facility was as much for its team members as it was for its customers. Wright puts it best.

“Our new facility is an accurate representation of everything people love about the Monterey Bay – the colors, the open spaces, and the calm California beach town vibes – but it still has the sophistication of the famous golf courses near us.” He continues, “Our service hasn’t changed, but I think the new facility just magnified how great our team always was.

There is definitely a ‘wow’ moment when you walk into our lobby for the first time.” Internal recognition will always be one of the easiest and most cost-effective ways to make team members feel valued. A hand-written note about good performance or a personalized e-mail recognizing a team member from his/her direct supervisor or CEO can create a meaningful connection that makes employees feel valued.

Studies suggest that people don’t quit jobs, but they quit working for their leaders, so strong work relationships are paramount to reducing employee turnover and driving retention. External recognition is more like icing on the cake. Nevertheless, it still holds major significance to team members when their organization receives industry accolades.

Standard Aviation’s Sabina Rosario says, “Opening a world-class FBO and the largest free-span building in the Caribbean amid the pandemic was a challenge and a risk, but our team rose to the occasion and made sure our clients could continue to travel safely. To be voted number 1 in the Caribbean is a testament to the hard work and dedication of every team member.”

Many award-winning FBOs, including Million Air (Best Large FBO Chain in 2022) ensure that their corporate culture fosters a “family feeling,” while others, like Manny Aviation, describe themselves as talented teams with high expectations for performance. Employee empowerment is frequently singled out by FBO leaders as important in ensuring team members feel trusted and valued.

For some leaders, empowerment may be described as hiring good people and training them well, enabling them to use their best judgement in carrying out their jobs each day. Positive results of embracing this type of empowerment in the workplace include a more satisfied workforce, safer workplace, and higher customer service ratings.

The speed at which the aviation environment operates demands empowerment to meet customers’ high expectations successfully and adapt to constantly changing working conditions. Over the past 2 years, FBOs and vendors, together with their employees, have redefined the importance of the balance that has to exist between their personal, family, and work time.

The outcome is a need for companies to provide a level of flexibility for their workforce that allows them to spend quality time at home while optimizing their efforts at work.

Manny Aviation grabbed 2 out of the top 3 spots in the Best Mexican FBO category in the 2022 Pro Pilot PRASE Survey.

Shaping the FBO industry

In this high-demand aviation environment, FBO leaders shape the future of their industry by developing career growth opportunities inside their organizations.

Signature Flight Support has been a consistent top performer in Pro Pilot’s PRASE Survey year after year. Director US Northeast Region & Canada Pasquale Raguseo, based at TEB (Teterboro NJ), has come up through the company’s ranks himself.

There are now 2 formal leadership development programs at Signature. One is the General Manager In Training Program, which allows supervisory and other management personnel to learn, grow, and develop business acumen to prepare them for GM opportunities.

The other is the Emerging Leaders Program, which prepares front-line employees to excel in supervisory and management-level roles. Understanding particular career goals of employees is a great way to shape an industry’s future.

Award-winning FBO leaders are fully engaged in building pathways for employees to move up within their companies and develop as future aviation leaders. Sheltair Aviation President Lisa Holland describes the operation of a family-owned business that has spanned nearly 60 years.

“We pride ourselves on our culture of supporting our people’s development and success, often reflected in the long tenure of employees who have been a part of the company for decades.” She adds, “In recent years, we have continued to add programs around wellness, tuition reimbursement, safety, and even volunteer time-off opportunities.”

Hospitality is a concept that has been paired with aviation when defining FBO customer experience. Jet Aviation’s philosophy is simply to make the experience “seamless, authentic, and memorable,” which certainly evokes a hospitality-focused mentality that aims at creating personal connections with both cockpit and aft cabin customers.

Ross Aviation’s Corbett has a background in hospitality, and brings this concept into focus. “Two years ago, we created the term ‘flight hospitality’ as a definer for what we provide to our customers and how we go about our daily responsibilities as an FBO. We pride ourselves on going beyond the basics of fuel, ramp space, hangar storage, and executive terminals.”

Vendors are also experiencing the same challenges as the FBOs they support. Joe and John Celentano, owners of Rudy’s Inflight Catering, voted Best Catering for Aviation – Northeast, have an interesting perspective on the future of aviation based on their experience in the business. “As an industry, private aviation has witnessed unprecedented demand and growth during the past few years,” they observe.

“None of us can say for sure what the next few years will bring, but the companies that will survive will be the ones that remain focused, flexible, and dedicated.” The leaders of the 2022 Professional Pilot magazine PRASE Survey winners are wise and emotionally intelligent, and they strive to be in touch with today’s workforce – especially with the teams they lead.

They also speak with confidence and authenticity about their organizations’ corporate culture and identity in a way that allows others to imagine what it’s like to work for their organization and for them as leaders. It is exciting to know that these are the leaders who are shaping the aviation industry of the future.

Melissa Thomas is the founder and CEO 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 Company.