Signature builds its network of European FBOs

 - October 17, 2006, 11:50 AM

With more than 1,700 employees worldwide, including 300 in Europe, Signature Flight Support handles nearly one million aircraft movements and provides more than 110 million gallons of fuel to business, general and commercial aircraft each year. Over the last five years the group has invested more than $100 million to design, restore and equip 15 FBOs.

In addition, it has acquired 21 FBOs in the last three years. Today, Signature operates at more than 70 locations in the U.S., Europe, Africa (Cape Town in South Africa), South America (Brazil) and Asia (Hong Kong).

“In Europe over the last 18 months we made seven acquisitions, built a new facility from scratch in Toulon [France] and integrated the new service centers in the network, which grew from 14 to 19 FBOs. All facilities acquired have been rebranded through our program of integration,” reported David Best, Signature’s managing director for Europe.

In Charleroi, Belgium, for example, the company refurbished the pilot and passenger lounge, enhancing it with satellite television and Internet connections. In addition, it has also upgraded security and quality standards to its specifications.

This wave of acquisitions included the takeover of Execair facilities in the UK and Belgium and purchase of a majority interest in Greece’s Athens Aviation Services. In September, Signature’s parent company, the UK-based BBA Group, announced the acquisition of two additional FBOs, PrivatAir at Paris Le Bourget Airport and an operation at Cape Town International Airport in South Africa.

The acquisition in Paris will complement Signature’s existing operation at the airport by providing an additional terminal, nine more hangars and a large aircraft parking ramp. After a planned renovation of the former PrivatAir facility, Signature intends to move its existing handling operation to the newly acquired property. After the move Signature will use its current terminal exclusively for locally based customers.

The company’s expansion is far from over, however, according to Signature president and CEO Beth Haskins. However, she declined to be more specific about future new Signature locations. “We look at every area. It is still a fragmented market. As business grows, there will be consolidation,” she told AIN.

So far Signature has invested $3 million in the rebranding and upgrading of the Execair network. “Although the business model and customer service programs in Europe and Africa are somewhat different from those in the U.S., we take a look at immediate changes and improvements we can make to meet Signature’s higher standards,” explained Haskins. “It also includes some specific training of staff for our European locations.” Usually, new Signature employees spend between 159 and 970 hours in training.

According to Best, the new Toulon FBO has been well received and traffic has been growing since last year. “Toulon is more than exceeding our expectations,” he noted. At London Heathrow, where Signature cares for 100 percent of the bizav traffic (having bought out the airport’s two other FBOs), “we had an extremely strong year and we have been integrating the two facilities while gaining from synergies.”

“For the future, I think our market will continue to consolidate, more so in Europe than in the U.S.,” said Haskins. “There are a lot of opportunities for us to expand and to enhance Signature’s reputation worldwide. At the NBAA Convention, we will highlight this growth in Europe and the extension of our network. Hong Kong is doing extremely well also, and Asia will become an important market for us in the course of the next 10 years, especially in China and Thailand,” she told AIN.

Security Procedures

Signature has implemented a number of security measures to protect its customers at European airports. These include a positive ID system for pilots and crews to access the ramp, as well as ramp escorts. Customer service representatives, line crews and general managers are all trained to keep a watchful eye.

The company has increased its security presence, with “specially trained” security guards at key locations. Additionally, security cameras allow employees to simultaneously keep a close eye on aircraft that are spread out over a large and active area as well as several key entry points.

At its Paris Le Bourget operation, Signature has installed a mobile baggage X-ray screening system. “It is the only facility on the airport that can provide such screening services,” claimed Best.

The battle of FBO networks has only just begun in Europe. The growth of Signature and the Feras group as well as the recent takeovers of handling groups such as AviaPartner in Belgium by 3i, Jet Aviation in Switzerland by Permira, and Swissport by Spain’s Ferrovial Group, illustrate the consolidation trend that may occur sooner or later in this sector.