Fixed-base operators provide support for domestic and international operations.
By Shannon Forrest
President, Turbine Mentor
ATP/CFII. Challenger 604/605, Gulfstream IV, MU2B
Once upon a time, pilots took care of all the pre- and post-flight duties themselves. Hours before the flight, they would walk over to the local Flight Service Station (FSS) and attended an briefing which included paper charts that depicted the current and forecast weather.
After the briefing, they filed a flight plan, which meant handing over a hand-written form to the person who just provided the weather briefing.
Before the passengers arrived, the pilots pulled the aircraft out of the hangar, fueled it, ensured it was clean, and loaded it with snacks and a few local newspapers. At the destination, they unloaded the bags, arranged transportation for the passengers, and prepared the aircraft for the flight back. And if the post-flight inspection revealed any maintenance issues, the pilots would address them with tools they had on board.
If this sounds anachronistic, it is. A scenario like this is reminiscent of flying in the 1940s and 50s. The post World War II era ushered in a proliferation of general aviation (GA)flying. The uptick was positive, although at first it presented a problem, like the one caused by the Federal Interstate Highway Act, signed by President Dwight Eisenhower.
The requirement to build 41,000 miles of interstate highway between the larger cities meant large stretches of travel occurred in rural or undeveloped areas.
Entrepreneurs quickly realized that the solution was to provide a place for weary travelers to refuel their vehicles, eat a meal, rest for the night, and tour an oddity or a unique local attraction.
For instance, In Amarillo TX, drivers could experience the Big Texan Steak Ranch, which consisted of a restaurant, brewery, human motel, horse motel, and gift shop. The local oddity was the 72-oz. steak challenge – eat it all in an hour (along with a baked potato, dinner roll, and a side salad) and the meal is free.
The advent of the FBO
The road travel experience was summarized by Nat King Cole in his song Get Your Kicks about Route 66, which was released in 1946.
At the time, aviators traveling around the country faced the same dilemma as drivers, as obtaining fuel and services over vast stretches of land was challenging. The answer came in the form of the fixed-base operator (FBO). The advent of the FBO meant pilots could outsource services they used to do themselves.
The origin of the term FBO is a bit murky, but one popular opinion is that it was a result of the US Air Commerce Act of 1926, which established training standards and licensing requirements for pilots and mechanics. A mechanic that “set up shop” at a fixed location or “base” was known as a fixed-base operator. Today, the term FBO is most often used to describe a facility rather than an individual.
FBOs run the gamut from privately owned single locations, to huge corporate chains located across the globe. Pilots sometimes refer to the smaller facilities as “mom and pop shops,” which is a throwback to the days when all FBOs were family owned.
At rural non-towered airports, the FBO is typically operated by the city or county in which the airport is located. The amenities are sometimes rudimentary, consisting only of a self-serve fuel pump, a bathroom, and a vending machine that hasn’t been resupplied in months. Stories about FBO courtesy cars – a car left there for pilot use – are infamous. When flying into a rural airport, there’s a good chance that the pilot courtesy car was a former police car or municipal vehicle.
Medium and larger airports may have more than one FBO. And from a business standpoint, each tries to “one up” the other when it comes to attracting pilots.
One would think the one with the lowest fuel cost would attract business, which may be true for private pilots who operate their own aircraft, but corporate pilots don’t pay for fuel out of pocket, so FBOs use other marketing techniques and ploys.
Flower Aviation, now operated by Rocky Mountain FBO at PUB(Pueblo CO), advertised a 10-minute turn and gave pilots a 10-oz frozen NY strip for each 100 gallons of fuel uploaded to the aircraft. And an FBO at ELP (El Paso TX) provided pilots with a can of local green chili peppers for every 25 gallons.
One of the most popular campaigns, however, was the AvFuel points program that credited pilots 1 point for each gallon of fuel they purchased. Once they had accrued enough points, they could trade them in for US Government-issued savings bonds.
Dressing all the FBO employees in a similar or specific way is another technique that’s been used in marketing. This is why Million Air receptionists are dressed all in black. And if it weren’t for the smell of Jet-A, one would think he has entered a fancy Manhattan nightclub in the lobby of the FBO.
Although mom and pop FBOs still exist, there’s been a trend toward acquisition and consolidation over the course of the past 2 decades. Smaller FBOs and those with a single location have been absorbed by larger entities. The moniker given to these larger organizations is “chain FBO,” and these include big names like Signature, Jet Aviation, and TAG.
Pilots have always complained about ramp fees. But when the bigger FBOs absorbed the smaller ones, the ramp fees became the norm. To be fair, a Gulfstream captain for a Fortune 100 company uploading thousands of gallons of fuel for an international trip is likely not among those complaining, since ramp fees are waived by most FBOs as a function of how much fuel is purchased.
It’s the operator of the Cessna 310 or single-engine piston who complains about this because they got used to not paying the fee when the FBO was a pop and mom type.
It turns out free coffee isn’t free, as FBOs have to cover the cost of overhead and rent. Savvy flight instructors of yesteryear would tell their students to purchase some “courtesy fuel” (fuel they didn’t really need to complete the flight) when using the bathroom at the FBO on student cross country flights. It was simply a gesture of goodwill for using the ramp and the facilities.
Using chain FBOs
There’s several benefits to using a larger FBO chain, and one of the most important is the number of amenities available. There’s “need-to-have” and “nice-to-have” offerings, and aside from fuel, pilots report that having high-speed Internet connectivity is the most important requirement.
Sure, having a multi-media theatre room is nice touch, but times have changed, and pilots these days are streaming movies and TV shows on their own tablets while reclining in a quiet room. High-speed Internet is also key to obtaining weather, conducting flight planning, and making travel arrangements, especially on international flights.
Many FBOs have restaurants or catering facilities on site, like the breakfast taco window at Signature MAF (Midland TX). FBOs can also provide pilots with a modern courtesy vehicle to eat off site.
One major advantage of using an FBO chain is the ability to obtain turbine aircraft maintenance. This is critical when flying internationally, as parts and expertise may be hard to come by and could jeopardize the trip.
Two of the most popular destinations are London and Paris, and both cities have exceptional FBOs at their airports. Signature LTN (London, UK) is consistently ranked as the best European FBO by Professional Pilot readers.
Signature is the world’s largest network of FBOs, with more than 200 locations, and its proprietary QuickTurn service is guarantees aircraft can be in and out in under 30 minutes. Signature LTN can provide technical services that include aircraft maintenance, de-icing, cleaning and detailing, and comfort items like milkshakes and coffee made by a barista.
In addition, a snooze room, shower, and a VIP suite are available, along with standard rental cars or specialty vehicles provided by Enterprise Exotics.
Farnborough Airport FAB (Farnborough, London, UK) is considered the business aviation gateway to Europe, and provides a wide array of business aviation services that start with a dedicated concierge. Private aviation facilities consist of 5 lounges with complementary refreshments. If needed, there’s also a more private VIP space. A chauffeur service is available, and central London is only an hour away by car, or a 12-minute journey by helicopter – which can be arranged as well.
On-site customs and immigration smooth the entry process, and a partnership with nearby hotel The Aviator means weary travelers can grab some sleep immediately after making the transatlantic crossing.
Another airport that’s become well-known for business aviation is BQH (Biggin Hill, London, UK), which is southeast of central London. The airport is a former Royal Air Force base that’s been converted to civilian use.
Many recognizable names are located on site, including Bombardier, Textron, Cirrus, and Zenith. This means there’s a lot of options when it comes to emergency technical support, parts acquisition, and avionics troubleshooting. Two ramps manned by Jetex can accommodate nearly any size aircraft, and provide helicopter transfers downtown.
BQH prides itself as “the most pet-friendly airport in the UK,” and does so in the form of a service called SkyPets. A dedicated team of specialists can ensure the appropriate paperwork and approvals are completed before bringing a pet into the country.
Harrod’s – the company known for the luxury store located in Knightsbridge – got into the FBO business when it acquired Hunting Business Aviation in 1995. Harrod’s operates 2 FBOs, one at LTN and one at STN (Stansted, London UK). The LTN location specializes in Bombardier Challenger and Global scheduled maintenance and AOG support, while Harrod’s STN offers maintenance for Sikorsky and Leonardo helicopters.
Universal Aviation LBG (le Bourget, Paris, France) offers catering, ground transportation, refreshments, and baggage handling, and has the ramp space to handle a wide-body aircraft. Universal touts that crew and passengers are typically out of the airport no later than 20 minutes after landing. On-site customs and immigration streamline the process, and a private apron and heated hangar can ensure the aircraft is secure and ready to go in short notice.
Air Culinaire caters 5-star dishes that would impress a Michelin Star chef.
Although pilots who seldom travel to Europe might not immediately recognize some of the FBO names exclusive to Europe, 2 names that are familiar are Jet Aviation and TAG Aviation. Both companies have been in the aviation industry for decades, and provide award-winning services and aircraft support across the globe.
When it comes down to it, FBOs that are classified as premium or executive all offer similar services. The question is, how do you decide which one to use? In some cases, the passengers have a preference. Sometimes it’s a matter of brand loyalty. Other times, the level of service is so stellar and superior that changing is a risk.
The one thing that is certain is that having multiple options raises the bar and makes for a better
FBO experience for both passengers and pilots.
Shannon Forrest is a current line pilot, CRM facilitator, and aviation safety consultant. He has more than 10,000 hrs TT and holds a degree in behavioral psychology.