FBO Profile: Signature DCA

 - October 5, 2006, 10:34 AM

It used to be Signature’s busiest location– by far. The FBO at Ronald Reagan Washington National has seen on its ramp everyone from presidents, ex-presidents and captains of industry to weekend pilots with their families visiting the nation’s capital. A Cessna 172 pilot asking directions to the Metro subway station to go see the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum could find himself standing elbow-to-elbow with the Speaker of the House at the FBO counter.

That fire hose of activity choked to a trickle after 9/11. Now, with the airport getting ready to reopen–at least partly–to general aviation, how is Signature preparing for the big day?

Regaining access to Reagan National has been a top priority for NBAA virtually since the airport was closed to general aviation immediately after 9/11. With the appropriate security agencies inching their way toward reopening the airport to bizav, Signature–which has retained a skeleton staff at DCA for all these years–faces an interesting dynamic. How much traffic does it expect to handle? And how soon? Will activity levels ever reach what they used to be?

Signature could not comment directly on its plans for DCA because the company signed a non-disclosure agreement with the Transportation Security Administration. But some generalized assumptions are likely. For example, the Signature Web site never dropped DCA from its list of locations. Click on “DCA” and you’ll see a photo of the hangar with airplanes inside, and you can read the following message. “The Washington National facility is staffed Monday through Friday–07:00 to 17:00 [local time] to accommodate aircraft granted waivers to [Notam FDC 2/1369]…”

Interestingly, aircraft operators who have applied for the waivers from the Transportation Security Administration face many of the same conditions and requirements found in drafts of the interim final rule that is expected to allow the first trickles of regular traffic back to the airport. For example, some waiver conditions unofficially in place since 9/11 included having an approved law enforcement officer on board and departing from an approved airport.

It’s not clear how many general aviation aircraft have secured such waivers over the past four years–or how often–but it is noteworthy that the Signature ramp has not been completely idle. The storage hangar and ramp have also served as host to the Immigrations and Customs Enforcement fleet of helicopters and surveillance jets.

As a barometer of its business aviation volume before 9/11, consider Signature DCA received the most evaluations by pilots in the AIN FBO surveys for 1998 (855) and 2000 (858). [The survey was biennial in those years.] The closest any other FBO came was 779 evaluations for Signature at Boston Logan in 1998.

The trend extends back even further. In 1994, for example, Signature DCA received a whopping 932 evaluations. Its corporate predecessor, Butler Aviation, received ratings from 1,010 pilots in 1992. In 2002, after Signature DCA had been all but closed for more than a year, 649 pilots still evaluated the FBO–second only to Signature at Boston Logan Airport as the most evaluated facility in the survey.

Indeed, Signature headquartered its customer-service team, led by corporate v-p of customer relations Mary Miller, at DCA because so many of its customers came through the facility regularly in the years before 9/11. The company has remained confident that the base would eventually reopen–confident enough that Miller and her staff have remained at their DCA offices, rather than relocating to Baltimore Washington International (BWI) or Dulles International (IAD).

So what does it take to bring a once bustling FBO back to speed? Besides dusting off cobwebs, area general manager Eric Hietela–now based at IAD and himself the former general manager at Signature DCA–will have to decide quickly how many employees to reassign; how many trucks, tugs and other ramp vehicles to relocate; and even make decisions about employee uniforms.

In the months leading up to release of the interim final rule for general aviation access to DCA (expected imminently at press time), Signature would have evaluated a variety of possible traffic levels and made its contingency plans accordingly. By the time you read this, one of those plans is likely already in progress.

A lot of the company’s equipment and personnel had been reassigned to BWI and IAD. Likewise, aircraft operators have also become accustomed to using those airports for access to the nation’s capital. For many of those operators, even reopening DCA will not bring them back to the airport on the banks of the Potomac. Especially in the case of IAD, many of the businesses that are the final destinations for jet travelers have moved westward–making the outlying airport that much more convenient.

Signature likely expects some trial and error in its approach to reopening the FBO to larger volumes of traffic. But the company is committed to re-establishing the base as one of its most important, even if it doesn’t ever realize the same levels of traffic it once had.