Airline-run FBO meets some out-of-the-ordinary standards

 - March 28, 2007, 7:58 AM

When flying into Cincinnati, pilots have a choice of two main airports: Lunken Municipal Airport (LUK), located on the north shore of the Ohio River and within the
city boundaries of Cincinnati, and Greater Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport (CVG), located in Covington, Ky., about 15 miles from downtown. Lunken, long known as Cincinnati’s business aviation airport, is served by myriad FBOs, aircraft charter companies and maintenance facilities. However, CVG has only Delta AirElite Business Jets/Jet Center.

As its name implies, Delta AirElite is wholly owned by the Atlanta-based airline (it acquired the entity when it bought regional airline Comair in January 2000). CVG is the airline’s second-largest hub behind Atlanta. Delta nearly dominates CVG operations, so it seems fitting that the only FBO on the field would also belong to Delta. Cincinnati-based Comair had purchased CVG-based FBO ServiceAir in 1981 to provide maintenance and line services for its growing fleet of regional jets, a role that the FBO still serves today for its new Delta masters. Although the FBO has maintained its monopoly for at least 20 years, Delta AirElite Jet Center manager Wynn Poe said his team cannot treat customers as if the FBO is the only kid on the block.

“Every day we have to prove our worth,” said Poe, who worked as a corporate pilot at Lunken’s Executive Jet before coming to Delta AirElite seven years ago. “Our fuel is cheaper here [compared with Lunken], our accommodations are better and our 266,000 square feet of ramp space can accommodate anything.”

Poe had a hand in designing Delta AirElite’s spacious $8 million facility, which opened in April 2000. Using his background as a corporate pilot, Poe incorporated more working spaces for the pilots, including private telephone areas equipped with laptop data ports, conference rooms, sleeping quarters with showers, a flight-planning room and a pilot’s lounge with cable TV and a closed-circuit TV that allows pilots to monitor the lobby remotely for signs of their passengers.

Behind the snack lounge is a full kitchen complete with dishwasher, refrigerator, microwave and cabinet space for client and transient flight-attendant use. A 24-hour shuttle is also provided to drive crews to restaurants, hotels and entertainment venues in nearby Florence.

The FBO’s 38,000-sq-ft hangar serves as home for Delta AirElite Business Jets’ charter fleet and aircraft that belong to seven tenants, as well as transient aircraft. A second Delta AirElite hangar houses the corporate flight department for Ashland Transportation. Built in compliance with state and federal requirements, both hangars feature a foam fire-suppression system and overhead heaters. Delta AirElite allows tenants to perform light maintenance on their aircraft, but doesn’t provide maintenance services for other than the company’s own aircraft.

Poe said that being part of Delta Air Lines provides several benefits since the Jet Center can gain access to the airline’s equipment and expertise. For example, during a recent ice storm, several business aircraft crews couldn’t get into Lunken due to weather minimums and landed at CVG instead. The Jet Center was able to borrow additional de-icing equipment and supplies from the airline’s maintenance facility at CVG, and it de-iced 17 aircraft, including a Boeing Business Jet, in just a few hours before storing most of them overnight in the hangar.

The airline resources also come in handy for safety and security issues. “The safety department at Comair [now branded Delta Connection, with its headquarters still at CVG] has 100 years of combined experience, and Delta’s is three to four times that,” Poe said. “We’re able to tap into that expertise for the benefit of our customers.”

Poe also serves as director of safety and security for Delta AirElite Business Jets, Delta’s business jet charter arm, and said the recently imposed 12-5 security standards were “second nature” to Delta AirElite Jet Center since it had been conducting background checks on employees even before 9/11. According to Poe, the CVG airport management is also tough on security, mounting cameras at all points around the airport, including outside the Jet Center facilities.

“We were one of the first companies to be in compliance with the new 12-5 rule,” said Poe. “We’ve always met or exceeded the FAA standards in terms of security since we follow [Delta’s] airline requirements for employee badges and other security items.” The rigorous security seems to have paid off as the FBO has passed surprise TSA inspections twice, although Poe said there’s always room for improvement. Poe works closely with the airport and the TSA to ensure security stays tight, and for good reason–three of the 9/11 hijackers applied for jobs at CVG but all were turned down due to lack of credentials.

Wearing the Delta brand means more than borrowing equipment and expertise, however. It means maintaining the image of quality associated with a major airline, including undergoing periodic audits. “The airline has a set standard for customer service that makes us step up and do things above and beyond what might be expected of an FBO,” Poe said. “For example, when the Nascar race is in town [at the newly built Northern Kentucky Speedway in Carrollton], we’ve arranged for as many as 60 rental cars to be available for the racers and their crews. Even though most of the racers are from the Carolinas and don’t buy fuel, we’ll still listen to the race and pull out airplanes as needed.” Poe said the winner’s airplane is pulled out last since he’s normally held up long after the race for photos and interviews.

Still, Poe said the airline mentality that pervades the FBO’s customer service doesn’t stifle the operations. “I feel fortunate that Mike [Green, president of Delta AirElite Business Jets] has allowed me to operate the FBO as I deem necessary,” Poe said. “With the Delta logo on the wall, there are certain expectations [with regard to service], but I steer the ship on a daily basis.”