Flight-planning services boost European efforts

 - October 17, 2006, 12:23 PM

Along with the world’s two other leading flight-planning groups, Universal Weather & Aviation’s home is in Houston. But in the past few years the company has made a conscious effort to be more Euro-centric.

Universal now has five of its own FBOs in Europe–at London Stansted, Paris Le Bourget, Milan Linate, Rome Ciampino and Shannon, Ireland. And in addition to its UV Global Network partner FBOs, the company also has specific joint ventures with the Feras group of handling supervisors (with bases throughout Russia, central and eastern Europe and now in Germany), as well as with EuroAviation (Greece), Universal Spain (Madrid and Barcelona) and Swissport Executive Aviation (Nice in the south of France). In January, Universal will relocate its existing Paris Le Bourget base into a newly refurbished building with adjoining hangar space.

Vetting FBOs

Three years ago, Universal established a European operations center at Stansted to create a specialist flight-planning team dedicated to serving the needs of more independent operators flying within Europe. Now it has appointed Yeet Jones a new sales manager for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, with Jonathan Howells promoted to regional director for these markets.

“We’re different from a traditional handling company because we send our own traffic (i.e. its flight-planning clients) to FBOs, so we have a good understanding of service standards and where there might be a case for opening a new base,” Howells explained to AIN. “There is a distinct limit on jewel-in-the-crown locations (where there would be a case for opening an FBO), but we can develop the UV Global Network here and bring in more secondary locations.”

But the limited opportunities for opening new FBOs in Europe aren’t all related to limited volumes of bizav traffic. Howells confirmed that it is still proving hard to break up handling monopolies, especially at locations where airport managements don’t make a true distinction between airline and general aviation handling. “The attitude of airports varies a lot,” he said. “We expect to get there in the end, but it won’t happen overnight.”

Universal has stringent requirements for the FBOs that join the UV Global Network, enforcing precise policies on details such as how to cone off aircraft noses, wings and tails. Customers using these facilities benefit from a central billing process, and the company is now seeing more “direct traffic” operators using the network, in addition to Universal Trip Support flight-planning clients.

Rival flight planning group Air Routing has taken a different approach. It doesn’t operate FBOs itself and it doesn’t guide clients toward bases on a preordained list. According to UK representative Terry Yeomans, the company prefers to let clients specify their preferred FBO and focuses instead on ensuring that all the requirements for a specific trip are met wherever that aircraft is handled. “We have no vested interest in the choice of FBO,” he explained. The firm now has European offices in London, Paris, Frankfurt, Moscow and Nice.

Flight-planning Firm Neutral on FBO Choice

So does this approach mean that Air Routing finds such consistent levels of service quality that it is comfortable sending clients to any FBO in Europe? Yeomans was tactful on this issue while acknowledging that there are parts of Europe that are not culturally predisposed to provide the type of service that U.S. operators, in particular, would generally expect. He said that first-time U.S. visitors are especially prone to culture shock about the facilities and practices they find both at airports, and at hotels and other service providers.

“There are differences in expectation between FBOs and clients,” he acknowledged. “We don’t go to all FBOs with a long and precise list of general requirements because we accept that people do things differently around Europe.”

Yeomans emphasized that in some locations there might be perfectly legitimate reasons why the operator cannot provide handling strictly according to a book of rules and argued that it is better to supervise each trip on its own merits. Often an FBO is severely constrained in what it can do by rigid restrictions imposed by airport managers, such as at Ireland’s Dublin Airport.

Planners Agree: More Consolidation Coming

The continuing wave of consolidation in the European FBO sector is seeing the emergence of several chains. In Yeomans’ view this should in theory result in greatest consistency of service quality. However, he also cautioned that branding alone isn’t an assurance that a group’s reputation will travel well. He also added that even large-scale investments by the dominant groups won’t necessarily overcome inherent operational and infrastructure restrictions at certain European airports.

In fact, Yeomans believes that consolidation and FBO chain-building may have now run their course due to the limited market access opportunities at European airports. He added that he would regret the disappearance of independent FBOs, with their distinct approaches to the task of executive aircraft handling.

Baseops International president Jerry Scott also believes that more FBO consolidation is coming in Europe, but he too is not entirely convinced this is a good thing. He acknowledged that the trend should result in larger, stronger FBO networks that are better able to invest in equipment, facilities and training.

On the other hand, Scott is saddened by the prospect of entirely homogenous services. “When speaking to FBO personnel outside the U.S., I encourage them not to lose the local flavor of their culture. This makes them unique,” he commented.

Through its parent company World Fuel Services, Baseops has a presence at locations throughout Europe. Scott told AIN that it tends to send flight-planning clients to its network of trusted FBOs and would be likely to use a new facility only after receiving commendations from operators that have actually used that FBO.

In Scott’s view service consistency problems tend to occur in Europe at locations where airport authorities impede an FBO’s doing a good job by imposing operational restrictions. He said that heightened security has only made this tendency worse.

According to Scott, elevated fuel prices have prompted business aircraft operators to be even more value-conscious when paying for other services, such as handling. However, he added that customers will generally remain loyal to an FBO that provides good service at “reasonable prices” and that the fuel/handling prices dynamic is different in Europe because FBOs are not generally selling fuel themselves.