Signature Flight Support: FBO company struggles to improve its reputation

 - September 20, 2006, 4:56 AM

Signature Flight Support has steadily stuck to its strategy since its founding
in 1992 and has grown to become the largest multiple-base FBO company in the world. The chain’s beginnings lay in the merger of Butler Aviation and Page Avjet, and it is owned by publicly traded BBA Group of the UK.

With 81 to 100 airport locations (depending on which list on Signature’s Web site you consult), Signature is about twice as large as Landmark Aviation and Atlantic Aviation (after Atlantic Aviation owner Macquarie Infrastructure acquires the Trajen FBO network in the third quarter). Signature has a significant number of non-U.S. FBOs (some of which are partnerships with local companies), with dozens in the UK, Brazil, Greece, South Africa, Ireland, Belgium, France and China. The only chain with locations as diverse is Jet Aviation, although at 24 it has about a third as many FBOs as Signature.

Signature has grown despite criticism of the brand from FBO users such as respondents to the annual AIN FBO survey and pilots who frequent Signature. In this year’s survey, AIN readers judged Signature facilities average against other FBOs, although one base, Signature Bradley in Connecticut, rated number 36 (out of the 245 FBOs that received the number of responses required to be included
in the final report) and scored higher than its competitor at BDL, a Tac-Air base. Signature BDL received the highest overall average (8.015) of all Signature bases AIN readers rated.

Signature’s White Plains, New York FBO received a score of 5.996, lower than most other Signatures and also lower than its rivals at HPN, which are Avitat-Westchester (7.228) and Panorama (7.307). But HPN wasn’t Signature’s lowest score. At Boston Logan International Airport, Signature, a sole FBO, scored 4.950. Signature is also the only full-service FBO at Detroit City, where it scored 4.960.

One of the complaints Signature detractors have voiced is that because it is the only FBO at many airports and customers have no choice, Signature doesn’t have to provide good service. The numbers don’t support that conclusion, however, because many sole Signature bases scored in the sixes and sevens, numbers equivalent to many popular FBOs. At Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport, for example, sole FBO Signature scored a healthy 7.631, yet this is one of the bases about which a reader complained to AIN. Signature Denver International scored 7.408, slightly lower than Signature’s Centennial Airport score, where there are two strong competitors.

Of the 46 U.S. Signature FBOs, 35 received enough votes to be included
in the 2006 AIN FBO Survey. (Readers probably didn’t cast their votes for Signature at two of these FBOs–Indianapolis and Jacqueline Cochran/Palm Springs–because Signature bought them early this year.) While the survey covers North America, the Caribbean, Central America and South America, only two Signature FBOs in Brazil received enough votes to be included. Of the 13 Signature/Líder FBOs in Brazil, the Signature/Líder Taxi Aéro FBOs in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo received enough votes and were included. Business aviation traffic is not nearly as active in Brazil as in the U.S., but at least this is an indication that pilots are using FBOs in Brazil and responding to the FBO survey for that part of the world.

Good FBO/Bad FBO

AIN did receive a disproportionate number of negative comments about Signature in the FBO survey. It is hard to understand, however, why so many respondents complained when Signature’s overall numbers are so similar to those of many FBOs that don’t receive such complaints.

The Butler Aviation half of Signature is known to have had a poor reputation; ask any pilot with gray hair. Is it possible that some of the Butler reputation has carried over to Signature?

There were 32 comments that included the word “Signature” where the survey asked respondents, “What makes a bad FBO?” Many of these comments made no mention of a particular base, but instead used wording such as “Signature-type attitude” or “places like Signature.” Are these fair comments, given that they attribute a particular type of service to a company without mentioning the location or incident of bad service? It should also be noted that other FBO names were mentioned in the “bad FBO” comments, just not as frequently as Signature.

One comment, the only Signature comment in the “What makes a good FBO?” section, brought up an interesting point: “I think a good FBO is one that is interested in the survival of general and business aviation,” a chief pilot wrote. Many of the complaints mentioned Signature’s policy of charging high facility fees, especially for those visitors not buying fuel. Signature’s fuel prices also came under heavy criticism for being high.

But perhaps Signature is just doing what the above chief pilot suggested: cultivating its interest in the survival of general aviation. Signature is a publicly held company, beholden to stockholders and, according to the mission stated on its Web site, “focused on providing the aviation industry with a wide range of services and products.” Naturally, no company can do that without remaining in business. And Signature’s pricing seems to be in line with making sure the company remains profitable.

Nevertheless, negative comments about Signature abound. The following mentioned specific bases. There were many more “places like Signature” type comments, but those are not included because there is no way of knowing whether they are based on actual experience or simply the expression of information that is shared among pilots.

• “If you need a lesson on an FBO with a bad attitude, go to Signature at MIA.” Signature’s Miami base scored 6.840, which is not a low score.

• “Bad line service. We recently dropped passengers at Signature MEM, and line service never came onto the ramp. We had called ahead to announce our arrival, but were not met; we handled our own bags and left, all the while watching linemen watch us from the line room.” Signature Memphis scored 6.964.

• “Signature Boston broke my Falcon 900 baggage door more than a year ago
and still refuses to take my phone calls.” A sole FBO, Signature BOS scored a low 4.950 (not the lowest score in the survey).

• “FBOs that don’t know the definition of a quick-turn, such as Cutter at ELP (absolutely the worst) or Signature at AUS.” Signature Austin scored a respectable 7.319, higher than Cutter El Paso’s 6.974.

• “Line Service!! This is why I hate TEB and SFO. Signature SFO is the worst FBO I have ever been to.” Another SFO comment: “Attitude. You can have a great facility, but if there is not an attitude of service, it’s a bad FBO. SFO Signature is a good example. An ‘it’s not my job’ attitude exists there and that ruins the positive of having a great facility.” Signature’s SFO number is 6.907, and this is a single-FBO airport.

Not all the comments with the word “Signature” were negative. One respondent noted, “I was flat out told by Atlantic to ‘go to Signature if you don’t like us’ when I brought a rude employee to their attention.”

High Prices a Sticking Point
A flight-department manager who operates a Beechjet 400 said in an interview with AIN that his biggest complaint about the Signature bases he frequents is that “they force you to purchase from them. You don’t have a choice.”

He flies to Minneapolis about once a month to drop off passengers and wants Signature to let him shut one engine down and deplane passengers and depart without paying a $250 facility fee. “I can be on the ramp for less than five minutes,” he said, “and they still require that kind of charge.” He said he wouldn’t have to pay the fee if he bought at least 175 gallons of fuel but, he added, “they charge more per gallon than any other FBO I go to.”

This pilot has started asking passengers if they would be willing to drive a little farther to save money on fuel. “It’s gotten so bad, I’ve started to use other FBOs where my passengers have to drive an extra 20 minutes each way. I’ve been avoiding MSP, having them go to St. Paul, and avoiding MKE and going to Waukesha.”

The chief pilot has tried to negotiate with Signature general managers, but found that apart from token fuel discounts, “they are unwilling to negotiate. At Signature, they have so much pressure from the corporate office, they don’t have room to maneuver on these prices. That’s their price structure, take it or leave it. They don’t care. The only good thing I can say is that they are updating their facilities.” But he would rather pay less and go to FBOs without all the fancy trimmings. “Just because we fly a jet doesn’t mean we’re going to throw money away,” he concluded. Signature declined to comment for this report.

Positive Feedback

Not all comments about Signature are negative. In the AirNav airport database, there are quite a few positive comments, although many are from piston-engine pilots surprised at receiving good service from jet FBOs. This Challenger 604
pilot was happy with Signature: “Our experience in Las Vegas has been excellent! Line service as well as the desk staff bend over backwards to help. We plan on using them every time we return to Las Vegas.”

Jeff Beck, a contract Gulfstream pilot who often flies international trips, calls himself a Signature fan and uses Signature whenever he is flying in the U.S. and
at some international destinations. “The London-Luton facility is outstanding,” he said. He likes the training that Signature provides to its employees.

Beck attributed some of the negative Signature scuttlebutt to pilots who are mimicking each other. “Oftentimes their mindset is based on what they read and hear,” he said, “rather than their own opinions.” Beck conceded, “Some locations and personnel are less desirable, but more often than not, they are very good. If there were one negative trend I have observed, it would be that the fractionals seem to get preferential treatment.”

Costs of operating business jets are high, and Beck explained that rapidly changing fuel costs “have made budget projections more fragile. This is not the fault of Signature, rather the fault of the aviation manager not updating his budgets to reflect today’s costs. As for the owners, I think they understand the cost of doing business. Why is it that pilots try to spend billionaires’ money like it was their own?

“There is a significant cost to doing business as it pertains to ownership. In these times, costs are high: fuel, real estate, airport leases, equipment, labor and so
on. And then there are the continual complaints about the ramp fee. Signature spends a great deal of money to provide a comfortable and secure place for passengers, aircraft and crew. The very concept that an airplane comes in to use the facility and not buy gas or other services and to do it for free is ludicrous. Signature Flight Support needs to realize reasonable profits to continue to be a viable service.”

There is a lot more to Signature Flight Support, given that it is part of BBA Aviation, which also owns engine overhauler Dallas Airmotive and other aviation service and manufacturing companies. Signature users can earn free fuel by doing business with Dallas Airmotive, which is one of the ways that BBA Aviation has integrated
the two companies.

With its extensive FBO network spreading all over the world, Signature is bringing typical FBO services to many countries (such as China) where such services weren’t always available. And while Signature does price its fuel (at retail) higher than many other FBOs, including competing FBOs on the same airports, it must be doing something right because it continues to grow and acquire new FBOs and deliver the services that pilots want and need.