FBO Survey 2002 - Ten all-reds, plus one exceptional Canadian

 - May 16, 2002, 10:13 AM

1. Wilson Air Center, Memphis (Tenn.) Municipal Airport (MEM)

Ask any championship team. Repeating a win isn’t easy. Congratulations go out to Wilson Air Center for topping the scoring again this year in the AIN North American FBO survey. This time, the margin was a razor-thin .009 of a point out of a possible nine points. In fact, the professional accounting firm contracted to calculate the results of the survey conducted an additional screening of all evaluations involving Wilson Air Center to ensure that the results were indeed accurate.

By now, the Wilson Air Center story should be well known. Five-and-a-half years ago, Bob Wilson, an Air National Guard pilot for 30 years and son of Holiday Inn founder Kemmons Wilson, realized his lifelong dream by opening an FBO at MEM. Wilson Air Center v-p David Ivey said, “It wasn’t easy. He had to sue the airport for approval to build it. It took 10 years.”

Set apart by its distinctive 26,000-sq-ft canopy, Wilson Air Center is known among pilots as a great place to visit. “They just love coming here,” said Ivey. He expressed his business philosophy regarding how to ensure a profitable operating practice. “There are two ways to increase margin. You can raise your price or you can increase the uplift per aircraft.” The goal of Wilson Air Center is to encourage pilots to take on more fuel at what the FBO considers to be reasonable prices. Bob Wilson estimates that his FBO has saved general aviation $3- to $4 million at MEM because it provided competition where there had previously been only one operation on the field.

The Wilson Air Center complex at MEM includes 32,000 sq ft of office space and 125,000 sq ft of hangar storage area. Ivey said, “We always keep a few spots open for new based customers and transients.” The Wilson leasehold covers 15 acres at MEM.

Bob Wilson is interested in acquiring more FBOs, but only if the deal is the right one for the time and place. He said, “So far, I’ve been real successful at being the number-two bidder on every acquisition we’ve attempted. I either want two or three good FBOs or I want just one.”

Maybe by the time AIN conducts its next North American FBO survey, Wilson Air Center Memphis may have some family competition for the top spot.

2. Business Jet Center, Dallas Love Field (DAL)

In the comments section of his AIN FBO survey questionnaire, one pilot wrote, “If you want to see how it’s done, visit the Business Jet Center in Dallas. They’re the best!” In the final tally for this year’s survey, Business Jet Center (BJC) came within a hair of the top rating, rising from an overall number-67 ranking in 2000.

Management at BJC is a family affair. Chairman and managing general partner of the business is Robert Wright, a 30-year veteran of the Dallas real-estate market and long-time owner and operator of business jets. His wife, Mary Brown Wright, is founder and president of Medical Space Design, an interior design firm specializing in hospitals, medical offices banks, churches and, now, FBOs. Her lifelong interest in art and painting has contributed to the eclectic style of the Business Jet Center. The Wrights have two children, also on the BJC management team, and five grandchildren.

Like Wilson Air Center, the BJC facility features a giant entrance canopy capable of sheltering aircraft as large as a Gulfstream V. The terminal is accented with artwork, sculpture, a crystal chandelier and the Glass Palace, a private executive communications center featuring fiber-optic lighting throughout. The terminal building has four conference centers and a private dining room with an outdoor terrace overlooking the airport and downtown Dallas. Complimentary extras include bagels, fresh fruit, juice, lemonade, coffee, tea and fresh-baked cookies.

The flight-planning/weather center also has direct connections to flight service and clearance delivery. The newly expanded apron can support bizliners.

The BJC fuel farm incorporates two 30,000-gal jet-A tanks, one 12,000-gal avgas tank and a 4,000-gal mogas tank for servicing ground vehicles. A Phillips 66 Performance Center, BJC operates five refueler trucks, four of which are 5,000-gal jet-A units.

Among the unique services offered by BJC is its “Tidy Turn Around” service, providing aircraft interiors with a complimentary cleaning and “a friendly touch of tender loving care.”

3. Million Air Dallas, Addison, Texas (ADS)

Line service is only one page on Million Air Dallas’ resume. Maintenance, interior refurbs, charter and aircraft management are also on the menu of services available. That’s unusual among the top-rated FBOs in the AIN North American survey. General manager Jack Hopkins, with 18 years of service at Million Air, is to be commended for continually keeping the Dallas facility in the top three among AIN’s survey.

He attributes the consistency to retaining most of the same personnel over the past 17 years or so. Amenities also help, and Million Air Dallas has a workout facility with independent gym centers, a hot tub and Internet access via a dedicated computer. Million Air Dallas also has an executive lounge, conference rooms, two pilot lounges, showers, complimentary coffee, ice, newspapers and GPUs, lav service and interior vacuuming.

Location helps the cause, and Addison Airport is situated on the north side of Dallas, in direct line with the area of corporate expansion. Tenants such as JCPenney, Frito Lay, Pizza Hut and others translate into increased fuel sales for Million Air and more business for its other interior refurbishment and management divisions as well. The Million Air leasehold covers some 15 acres at ADS, and Hopkins figures he has approximately an 80-percent market share among transient aircraft.

4. Regent Aviation, St. Paul, Minn. (STP)

At Regent, the key to success is not so much competition with other FBOs on St. Paul Downtown Airport (aka Holman Field), but rather competing with Minneapolis International Airport (MSP) across town. When many pilots or passengers think of the Twin Cities, they think of the “big” airport. Regent points out that using STP almost invariably saves time, both on the ground and in the air, with fewer expressway snarls and less ATC rerouting and holding.

As a base for tenant aircraft, Regent has expanded from a one-hangar operation in 1993 to its current complex of five private and six company-owned hangars. Based tenants are encouraged to customize and specialize their own hangars.

The marketing approach doesn’t aim to compete on price, but rather on the level of service to the customer. General manager John LaFontsee is the former area v-p for Signature Minneapolis International and a Regent employee from 1988 to 1991. His grasp of the local business aviation scene is a major asset in Regent’s efforts to retain its share of business jet traffic in the Twin Cities.

5. Petersen Aviation, Van Nuys, Calif. (VNY)

Like many FBOs, Petersen Aviation got its start as a corporate flight department. In this case, it was Petersen Publishing that branched out from its airborne service duties to settle into the ground-service business as well. In 1990, company founder Robert Petersen acquired the charter company from which he had been leasing aircraft, bought the leasehold at the south end of busy Van Nuys Airport and began planning a unique, Southern California-style terminal building and office complex. It opened in 1993, just in time for a major earthquake that blew out the windows of the control tower and completely destroyed another FBO on the airport’s north side.

Damage to Petersen’s new building was minimal, and it has gone on to become one of the favored FBOs for the competitive show-business charter market. Line service is a large part of Petersen’s business, with hydrant fueling available on the ramp. The leasehold covers nine acres of prime Los Angeles-area real estate and includes a pair of 17,000-sq-ft hangars, two 15,000-sq-ft hangars and an independent tenant shop.

One of Petersen’s chief assets as an FBO is its focus on the aircraft charter side of its business. Company pilots know the FBO market and see what goes on nationwide. They are quick to advise the staff back home on new trends, business practices or any other tips to improve service and market share at VNY.

6. AirFlite, Long Beach, Calif. (LGB)

Toyota-owned AirFlite is a perennially top-ranked FBO in AIN’s surveys. It took number-one honors in 1994 when it was barely two years old and scored in the top three in 1996, 1998 and 2000. Its ranking this year continues a tradition of excellent service and strong customer orientation. Like Petersen Aviation, AirFlite benefits from its role as the corporate flight department for its parent company, Toyota Motor Sales USA. Toyota’s Global Express travels the world, visiting Russia, China, South Africa and South America, to name a few.

AirFlite’s leasehold covers some 14 acres at LGB and its four-story terminal building also houses corporate offices for the parent company. The lobby/passenger lounge is a pleasing combination of glass and sunlight, with good views of the ramp and the rest of the airport. The facility also offers a putting green for waiting pilots and passengers as well as a “watering” area for pets. Hangar space is at a premium, but AirFlite usually manages to find room for transients who want to keep their aircraft under cover.

7. Avitat Ottawa, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada (CYOW)

Making a big jump in this year’s survey is Avitat Ottawa in the Canadian national capital. Ranked number 30 in 2000, the FBO has not experienced any appreciable change in facilities, but operations supervisor Troy Fisher attributes its success to the hard work, training and attitude of the line personnel and customer-support staff. “This is a family-run operation, owned and operated by Peter Meads, and many of our staff have been here for several years. Also, we’re a non-union company, which seems to affect the attitude of our employees–for the better, I’d say.”

Training includes the Imperial Oil (Esso/Exxon) aircraft fueling and handling training (AFHT) program and recurrent training through the Aircraft Training Institute, recently acquired by NATA. “The standards are rigorous,” said Fisher, “and we receive frequent and regular recurrent training as well.”

Facilities include a pilot lounge and snooze rooms, a game room with a pool table and VCR, conference room, available catering and on-site rental cars.

8. Avitat Toronto Skyservice, Toronto, Ontario, Canada (CYYZ)

For the third time in a row, Avitat Toronto Skyservice makes the top rankings in AIN’s survey without the coveted “all red” status achieved by many of its colleagues. As it did in 1998 and 2000, Avitat Skyservice fell just short of a red rating in pilot amenities, but scored high enough in the other three categories to yield an overall red average of better than 7.750.

With eight years in service at Pearson International Airport, Skyservice was founded when Russell Payson bought a 90,000-sq-ft hangar that had been vacated by an abandoned airline. After installing an impressive glass façade with a view of the ramp and runways, Skyservice was on its way to becoming one of the most popular FBOs in North America. More than 300 pilots chose to rate Skyservice in this year’s survey.

Located on the south side of the airport, Skyservice is most convenient to downtown Toronto. Parking on its ramp can save as much as 30 min of travel time to the city center, according to Payson. The 10,000-sq-ft terminal building includes a pilot lounge on the second floor, a library of books and magazines, a 20-seat boardroom and four private temporary offices for passengers or crew on long layovers. On cold Canadian nights, Skyservice can almost always find space in its cavernous heated hangar for transient aircraft.

9. Alliance Aviation, Fort Worth, Texas (AFW)

Alliance Aviation picked up nine spaces in the rankings to reach the top 10 and achieve all-red ratings in all four categories this year. The story of the FBO is usually overshadowed by the story of the airport itself, opened in 1989 as a dedicated industrial, corporate and general aviation operation. The airport offers direct taxi access to the private business facilities in Alliance Center, an industrial park.

Alliance Aviation, an ExxonMobil Avitat facility, features full line service (including military contract fueling), available hangar space, catering, customs, crew car, pilot lounge, weather and flight-planning room, maintenance and concierge service for hotel reservation and auto rental. The amenities at Alliance Aviation are available 24/7 for based customers and transient visitors alike. In addition to its honors in the AIN survey, Alliance Aviation has won the ExxonMobil Tiger Spirit Award for the past five consecutive years.

10. Denver jetCenter, Englewood, Colo. (APA)

Denver jetCenter moved up three spaces in the overall rankings this year, in addition to achieving top-level red ratings in all four categories. Located at busy Centennial Airport in suburban Denver, Denver jetCenter is one of four jetCenter FBOs. Others are located at Colorado Springs (COS) and Fort Collins (FNL), Colo., and Salt Lake City, Utah (SLC).

At Denver, the jetCenter features free cabin cleaning, heated hangar storage, crew cars, nearby golf and tennis with health-club privileges and the “Captain’s Clubroom,” featuring large-screen television and VCR. Passengers have front-door arrival service and a large lobby with an adjacent executive conference room. Limousines and rental cars are always on site.

The jetCenter also hosts the Perfect Landing restaurant, overlooking the ramp and runways at APA and yielding a view of Pikes Peak and the Rocky Mountains. The restaurant also serves as the catering outlet for in-flight meals. The management at Denver jetCenter encourages pilots to take advantage of volume fuel discounts and to sign its guest book for additional discounts.

11. Piedmont Hawthorne, Calgary, Alberta, Canada (CYYC)

Rounding out the top FBOs in this year’s survey is Piedmont Hawthorne at CYYC. The facility moved up eight slots in the rankings this year from number 19 and scored in the top-level red category in all four areas rated by responding pilots. The FBO has three heated hangars for those cold western Canadian nights and has a customs facility adjacent to the FBO.

Piedmont Hawthorne Calgary boasts a 15-min drive time to downtown Calgary, 45 min to the Canadian Rockies and about an hour to the  Banff and Lake Louise ski areas.

Services include ground transportation, catering, de-icing, ground power units and oxygen. There are pilot and passenger lounges, a conference room, weather service and flight-planning, showers and snooze rooms. Service is on tap 24/7 and there is an on-site restaurant at the FBO.