“You have to work at it every day. The changes don’t come in waves, but in tiny increments,” Philippe Crevier said about the FBO business. He spoke to AIN on his cellphone from his family’s vacation house.
The executive v-p and COO of Skyservice Toronto, one of the top-rated facilities in this year’s AIN FBO survey, gives out his cell number on his office voicemail message, just in case. The fact that he would accept a call from a journalist to discuss his corner of the FBO world adds weight to his words. Those sentiments were echoed by most of the executives behind the top-rated FBOs.
Though it certainly has its attractions, especially for aviation fanatics, the FBO industry is not one to be entered lightly. Airport histories are littered with examples of well meaning business executives–highly successful in other endeavors–who took a shine to airplanes and convinced themselves they could operate a successful FBO. Soaking up the ambient aroma of burning jet-A as part of their day-to-day environment was all part of the allure.
Typically, such a venture involved hefty initial investments for beautiful terminal facilities, followed by periods of healthy cash flow during boom times. Since the business was first intended as an indulgence, the “found money” from profits was poured back into the business in the form of further upgrades or expansion.
But it rarely lasts. The turnaround may come later rather than sooner, but eventually the soaring profits are replaced by a steep spiral when a down economy strikes at the heart of the corporate travel industry. Eventually, the overextended, disillusioned investor bails out, divesting of the fancy facility for pennies on the dollars invested.
One of the reasons for the perpetuation of this scenario, business cycle after business cycle, is the nature of the typical FBO business model. Traditionally, the lion’s share of profits are realized through fuel sales. That was fine when wholesale fuel prices were low, retail margins were high and thirsty turbojets needed to refuel at every stop. Today’s environment includes uncertain wholesale prices, rising overhead costs (insurance, wages and benefits, training, environmental concerns and legal fees to name a few) and high-efficiency turbofans that allow operators to be fussy about where they buy their fuel. The economic model left over from the good old days is strained at best and backbreaking at worst.
Regarding fuel prices, Monty Coordes, general manager of AirFlite in Long Beach, Calif., complained, “Jet fuel prices went up 20 cents a gallon last week. Here in California, we’re paying an average of $2.25 for a gallon of regular car gas.”
According to recent reports on National Public Radio, OPEC is satisfied that the price of crude oil has remained stable over the past few years and is considering increasing production, which would help drive down prices–eventually. In the meantime, a cold winter has stretched reserves of heating oil, which is directly linked to the supply of jet-A in the production cycle. The result is higher prices and lower profit margins for FBOs.
Norbert Ehrich, senior v-p for Jet Aviation at its headquarters FBO at West Palm Beach Airport (PBI), Fla., said, “Especially this past year, pricing volatility has been a real challenge.” He explained how his fuel customers have the ability to access information from around the country at the touch of a computer keyboard, and shop for the best price. John Mason, Jet Aviation PBI’s director of FBO services, said, “Price is definitely a priority, though service is a large factor in choosing an FBO. It’s our responsibility to strike just the right balance between level of service and price.”
But there is evidence that the economic turnaround may be having some positive influence on the industry. Mason said one of his customers “jumped” to a lower-cost fuel provider on the airport, but came back saying that the service at Jet Aviation was worth the higher price.
John LaFontsee, president of Million Air/ Regent Aviation in Saint Paul, Minn., said business has rebounded from the nadir of 2001–and is up further during the first part of this year. “There’s been good growth in fuel sales and on the maintenance side,” he told AIN. Craig Teasdale, regional manager for Signature Flight Support at Denver International Airport (DEN) and Centennial (APA), said a week doesn’t go by that he doesn’t get a call from someone new looking for hangar space.
Jack Hopkins, general manager of Million Air Dallas at Addison Airport (ADS), is also optimistic. He said the fourth quarter of last year and the first two months of this year have picked up, on both the charter and FBO sides of his business. The Million Air charter fleet has expanded to include a dozen jets, and Hopkins agrees with others in the charter business who tie activity to the stock market. He told AIN, “Charter comes with company expansion. Growth and IPOs [initial public offerings of stock] lead to corporate travel, and we’ve been seeing an increase. It’s been picking up among our based tenants and transient customers. We’re also seeing some customers expanding their fleets or upgrading their aircraft.”
Ed Zwirn at the Fort Lauderdale Jet Center was a bit less enthusiastic about the recovery. “We saw a two-month spike and then the demand went flat. Business did suddenly boom when the Dow Jones average hit 10,000 [at press time, it stood at about 10,500], but after the market stabilized, the demand slowed down, too. Maybe there was a psychological euphoria about the magic 10,000 number. On the positive side, we know of a number of specific companies that have lifted travel restrictions that were in place before the start of the recovery.”
Concerns, Costs and Caveats
When it comes to the laundry list of worries for FBOs these days, security ranks near the top. At a time when profits are sliced razor thin, the added burden of security costs can be a disastrous tipping point. Typical new direct costs include security personnel or services, surveillance equipment, communications equipment, biometric screening devices, high-tech locks, fences, gates and guard shacks. Indirect costs derive from the uncertainty of the current environment in which operators are waiting for the other shoe to drop from the Department of Homeland Security.
Overdue capital development programs continue to be delayed while waiting to find what the DHS might have in store for general aviation airport businesses.
Restricted airport access also affects FBOs, even if they are not directly in the line of fire, as is the case with Signature facilities at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport and, of course, the bizarre case of Mayor Daley and Meigs Field in Chicago. The FAA’s pop-up temporary flight restrictions (TFRs) can also play havoc with an FBO’s business, especially this election year with the President and other candidates hop-scotching around the country at the drop of a hat.
The Insurance Quagmire
One of the longest-term effects of 9/11 is on the insurance industry, and general aviation has been asked to shoulder more than its share of the burden–at least according to those who pay the bills. The mammoth losses incurred by the underwriters led to efforts to recoup wherever they could. The rise in premiums has been substantial, but is not the only effect. Where deductibles used to be relatively benign, now they are draconian by comparison. This has led to a movement throughout the FBO industry to tighten up on all claims, especially those for avoidable incidents of hangar and ramp rash.
The National Air Transportation Association and NBAA have partnered with most of the major aviation underwriters in a movement to minimize the hazards of ramp and hangar damage. The NATA Safety First program is one result, and its effects are being felt.
Stephanie Jordan, general manager of Business Jet Center at Dallas Love Field (DAL), is solidly behind the program and its many suggestions. She told AIN, “The insurance aspect of this industry has tightened up considerably.” On prompting from her insurance company, Jordan started placing traffic cones around all parked aircraft, not just those whose operators insisted on the practice. “If it’s important enough for one operator,” said Jordan, “that should be reason enough to do it for all of them.”
Business Jet Center employees also now wear whistles around their necks and carry them between their lips when marshalling or wingwalking an airplane. Jordan said, “I heard about the whistles from another operator. Hey, I’m not too proud to borrow someone else’s idea. If it works, why not?”
Jordan also related that pilots are being much more proactive about looking after their aircraft. “They are taking more responsibility and accountability, which makes sense. We say, ‘This is your ship.’” She said more and more based and transient crews are asking that Business Jet Center wait until they arrive before towing and fueling airplanes. “That’s great,” Jordan noted. “Another set of eyes, ears and hands is always welcome.”
She did mention that there is cost associated with the added safety measures. The extra manpower for wingwalkers and brake riders doesn’t come for free, but she said most aircraft operators are willing to pay 10- or 15 cents more per gallon of fuel for the reassurance that their aircraft will not be subject to damage, the resulting downtime for repair and the diminished value associated with damage history.
Pilots Like What They Are Getting
With all the concerns involved in the FBO industry, it is heartening to evaluate the latest survey results from AIN readers. The rating numbers and written comments confirm that the FBO industry is healthy and doing its part to keep business aviation a viable industry and make it an engine for economic growth.
Interviewing FBO owners and managers across the country is always an eye-opening experience–leading to the conclusion that the industry is so complex and diverse that it defies evaluation and summary in just these few pages every year. But if one truism comes through, year after year, it is that the business virtually requires a love and commitment to aviation that can survive the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Just throwing money at an FBO project is never enough, but when the will is there to succeed, there is almost always a way.
It took Bob Wilson 10 years to secure the rights to build his FBO on Memphis International Airport (MEM), Tenn. In the years since it opened, Wilson Air Center has consistently won the preference of AIN readers in the annual survey. The bricks, sticks and glass of a superbly built facility are part of it, but it’s the people who make it a winner year in and year out. Wilson hired David Ivey to run his operation, and Ivey showers the credit for his success back onto his boss. “It has to come from the top down,” he said, “and Bob Wilson loves this place, and the people who make it what it is.”
A former Air National Guard pilot, Wilson is still in love with flying, and commutes from his home to Wilson Air Center in a Cessna 210. Last summer, when a group of antique airplane enthusiasts assembled to recreate the cross-country Ford Reliability Air Tours from the late 1920s, Memphis was on the list of stopovers for the gaggle of two-dozen restored Wacos, Stinsons, Travel Airs, Fokkers and others–even a Ford Trimotor. Wilson cleared his busy schedule enough to get involved. When he talks about it, the enthusiasm in his voice betrays his excitement: “Most of the stops at other cities were at outlying airports, because so many of the antiques didn’t have radios. We negotiated with ATC for them to come into our airport, because it was one of the two or three that were on the original Air Tours. Because of that, more than 2,000 airplane enthusiasts were able to see those beautiful airplanes, up close, here in Memphis. And they got to know Wilson Air Center. We also got busy contacting our vendors to contribute everything from fuel and oil to box lunches. When the Air Tour came to Memphis, they didn’t have to pay for a thing.”
It may not be absolutely necessary to have that kind of love of aviation to be successful, but five years at the top of the AIN survey is a powerful endorsement.
No. 1 - Wilson Air Center (MEM)
Now verging on dynasty status, Wilson Air Center at Memphis International Airport (MEM), Tenn., tops this year’s ratings again, taking top honors in four consecutive surveys covering half a decade (before last year, AIN’s North American Survey was a biennial event).
Owner Bob Wilson, son of Holiday Inn founder Kemmons Wilson, attributes his continued success, at least in part, to the service-and-hospitality culture that emanates downward. The elder Wilson, who died early last year at age 90, founded the Holiday Inn motel chain and is credited as the originator of the concept of the modern motel. Wilson Air Center is a subsidiary of the Kemmons Wilson Co. conglomerate, and the FBO’s success is partly attributed to the hospitality lessons learned in developing and sustaining the Holiday Inn chain.
Apart from its reputation, another distinction sets Wilson Air Center apart from other FBOs. Its 26,000-sq-ft canopy is advertised as the world’s largest. Passengers and pilots deplane in comfort, sheltered from precipitation or hot sun. Wilson’s line crew then tows the aircraft to the parking area after the customers are on their way.
Though it might not have been the first such canopy, its apparent success has spurred other FBOs to build their own. Several FBOs in Florida are adding them, and even Eccela, the FBO at Olbia Airport on the Italian resort island of Sardinia, plans to construct a canopy after seeing Wilson’s.
Wilson Air Center boasts 125,000 sq ft of hangar area available and 32,000 sq ft
of office space within its complex. General manager David Ivey said, “We always keep a few spots open for new based customers and transients.” Ivey added that Wilson Air Center accommodates a heavy influx of transient pilots, and feels the need to strive continuously to keep their best interests in mind.
In fact, Ivey just announced plans to build a new hangar. Wilson Air Center has applied for approval from the airport authority and hopes to begin construction this year. Bob Wilson said, “When we built the existing hangars, we installed the underground infrastructure for this new one–sprinkler system, drainage, oil separator and so on. It’ll be about 22,000 square feet, and deep enough for a Global Express, Gulfstream V or an Embraer Legacy. FBOs that built 100-foot-deep hangars are going to find then obsolete.”
Ivey said gaining airport approval is the hard part, and building the hangar itself comes fairly easily for Wilson Air Center. He said, “Besides his involvement in Wilson Air Center, Bob is also the construction guru for the parent company and has built warehouses, timeshares, shopping centers and, of course, hotels and motels.”
Wilson Air Center acquired a new maintenance provider last year, and the result has been good for based and transient customers, said Ivey. The Hangar, based in Batesville, Miss., about 50 miles from Memphis, is not only an FAR Part 145-licensed provider, but also has Class II authority to perform maintenance on most OEMs’ aircraft, according to Ivey. The Hangar concentrates its structural maintenance and refurbishment work in Batesville, with a second crew kept busy at Wilson Air Center on phase inspections and other continuous maintenance, said Wilson.
Ivey told AIN, “The pilot business center we opened last year continues to be very popular among pilots. They love the private flat screen, high-speed Internet work stations and the private laptop chairs with modem hookups.” The 400-sq-ft area was developed by a professional design team to maximize the space available while meeting the “connectivity” needs of visiting pilots. The area has four distinct sections: a cubicle area with a trio of Pentium IV desktop computers with 17-inch monitors and Internet connection; a laptop area with three custom-designed chairs meant to accommodate pilots who operate from the road using laptop computers; a “spread-out” area with large-top tables for laying out charts and other paperwork; and finally the WSI weather station, which also incorporates a Meteorlogix weather system. Last year, Wilson Air Center also added wireless Internet service.
Wilson Air Center’s newest office tenant is Paperless Cockpit, a provider of electronic flight bag solutions. Wilson said that what happened the first day of the EFB provider’s lease is indicative of why Wilson Air Center continues to do so well in the eyes of pilots and passengers. Wilson said, “The first day they were in here, they sold two customers on their system, but their office wasn’t even up and running yet, so they didn’t have a way to close the deal. Our accounting department and our information tech guys got involved, as did Dave, to get the deal inked.”
Ivey said, “We got them connected through the pilot business center and hooked up to our laser printer. They could have waited a few days, I suppose, but when you make a sale you want to sign the deal as soon as possible, and we were able to get that done for the Paperless Cockpit folks.”
Wilson proudly related another story of a group from a New York advertising agency that arrived for a critical presentation to one of the local businesses. As they were preparing for the call the evening before, the sales team’s laptop crashed, dumping all their data. Wilson’s computer specialist, Robert McWilliams, took the New Yorkers shopping in his personal car, bought a new laptop, and coordinated with the agency’s home office to transfer the data so the presentation was back on line by 11 p.m. that same night for the morning meeting.
“That’s an example of what we call the Wilson attitude, and it comes from the top down,” said Ivey. Bob Wilson added, “We really do operate more like a family than the way most businesses run. There aren’t but a few people who have left here without going somewhere to better themselves–and we’re excited when someone from here goes on to become a mechanic or into business for himself. When we have a big uptick in business for whatever reason, we’ll call on some of our old employees and they’ll drive in from out of town to help out.
“I enjoy flying in here myself and watching these people work. And I think that’s what helps keep Wilson Air Center a place other pilots enjoy coming to.”
A former Air National Guard pilot with 30 years of service, Bob Wilson realized his dream by opening Wilson Air Center seven-and-a-half years ago. “It wasn’t easy,” said Ivey. “He had to sue the airport for approval to build it. It took 10 years.” To stay involved in current issues, Wilson also serves on the NBAA’s security council.
Those who don’t have occasion to visit Memphis might yet have a chance to experience Wilson’s hospitality, but you may have to be patient. An unabashed aviation enthusiast, Wilson told AIN he has been interested in acquiring new FBOs for the past several years, but had been unsuccessful, so far, in all his efforts to bid for facilities that were available. “We’ve been darn close,” he said, “but no cigar yet.
We don’t want to buy into a project that will only be a drain on this facility. It has to make business sense. But we would consider it only if we could make the changes needed to put the Wilson brand on a new location. Some of our competition for some deals were only looking to change the sign on the building.” But Wilson’s not in any rush, he said. “I either want two or three good FBOs, or I want just one.” According to five years’ worth of reports from AIN readers, the one he has is doing just fine.
No. 2 - Million Air/Regent Aviation (STP)
When Regent Aviation at Saint Paul Downtown Airport (STP), Minn., acquired the assets of competitor Million Air last year and chose to take its name, FBO president John LaFontsee anticipated a dip in popularity in this year’s survey. The Million Air facility was a bit run down, and he assumed Regent’s reputation would suffer when it assumed the Million Air identity as a long-term strategic move. He needn’t have worried.
As it has in the last four AIN FBO Surveys, Regent inched up one notch in the ratings this year to number two. With the increased name recognition supplied by the Million Air national network–and team-building initiatives emanating from Million Air’s central office–LaFontsee anticipates an even better showing next year.
Million Air/Regent Aviation has a fundamental mantra when it comes to promoting its facility. LaFontsee has it down to almost a chant: “We’re closer to downtown Minneapolis and downtown St. Paul than the FBO at Minneapolis/St. Paul International (MSP). And because we’re not burdened with commercial air traffic congestion and delays, your in-and-out times are considerably faster.”
He backs this up with customer anecdotes, including one involving a Citation that diverted to STP from the “big airport,” Minneapolis International, because of weather. LaFontsee told AIN, “When the crew recognized how much less complex the ATC access was, and the passengers saw how much easier it was to get downtown, they said they would never go back to MSP. And that’s just one of countless stories we hear from customers.”
But for those who haven’t been to the “alternative” Twin Cities airport, the natural selection would seem to be MSP, especially if there’s an airline connection in the flight plan. But LaFontsee said, even though he’s on a different airport, the road trip from Million Air/ Regent to the airline terminal at MSP takes only five minutes longer than the trip from Signature on the same airport. And aircrews report saving at least 15 minutes in total flight time when arriving and departing from the smaller airport.
Comfortable facilities are part of the Million Air/Regent success story, but experienced service technicians (ATI Ground Services trained), expertise and attitude are what set Regent apart, said LaFontsee.
And when you’re based in Minnesota, winter services are a top priority. Ground-handling capabilities include de-icing, overnight hangars, ground-power units and preheating, as well as the usual lav service, groom cart, potable water and valet service. Passenger and crew amenities include on-site rental cars, limo service, courtesy transportation to and from MSP, Jaguar crew cars, preferred hotel rates, catering, pilot lounge and quiet rooms and computer work stations with Internet access, including ports for laptops. New this year is a wireless Internet network connection. In the morning, there’s always cappuccino and fresh-baked cookies.
Regent is a Phillips 66 Performance Center, with premixed jet-A and 100LL. There is a facility user’s fee, though it is waived with a fuel purchase. Volume buyers get fuel discounts starting at the 250-gallon breakpoint. For avgas customers, there is a 50-cents-per-gallon discount on weekends. Customs is available 24/7 with prior notice.
Regent has password-required gates to all entrances and all hangar doors can be opened only with regularly changed code numbers. Cameras keep 24-hour surveillance on the ramp and hangar areas, and the tapes are filed for reference.
No. 3 - Scottsdale Air Center (SDL)
General manager Tommy Walker at Scottsdale (Ariz.) AirCenter is not unaccustomed to making an early splash in the AIN FBO survey. He was the general manager at AirFlite, Long Beach, Calif., when it took top honors after its first full year of operation back in 1994. Under Walker’s leadership, AirFlite repeated the performance two years later in the next AIN survey. The Toyota-owned FBO continues to provide exemplary service, finishing among the top 10 in every AIN FBO survey since it first appeared. But after 13 years at AirFlite, Walker has moved on and now heads the newest FBO in Scottsdale, Ariz.
Planning to retire in Arizona, he was coaxed back to the workaday world by AirCenter president Herb Marchman, who also operates a sister facility in Santa Fe, N.M. The all-new ground-up Scottsdale facility, 14 miles’ drive southeast of Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport, opened its doors in March last year with three 25,000-sq-ft hangars and an elegant 8,000-sq-ft terminal building featuring a gallery with the work of some 30 local artists. Plans call for heavy maintenance to occupy one of the hangars, and Duncan Aviation has opened an avionics shop on site. Phase two, a corporate hangar complex, is expected to begin in earnest later this year on the other side of the airport, with as many as six hangars (totaling some 100,000 sq ft) and 15,000 sq ft of office space. That would leave some four acres of ramp space on the eight-acre segment of the AirCenter leasehold.
An Exxon Avitat dealer, Scottsdale AirCenter has an 80,000-gallon fuel farm, of which 60,000 gallons are jet-A. A nearby industrial complex has direct access to the airport, and development at the field is encouraged by the municipal government. Asked how the business plan is panning out, Walker said it was on budget. “We’re still the new kid on the block, but we’re happy with the gains we’ve made in market share, and our hangars are about 80-percent full. There’s more than enough business on the airport for us and our competitors.”
No. 4 - Business Jet Center (DAL)
It’s a common thread that FBOs reflect the personalities of their ownership and management. The moment a visitor taxis up to Business Jet Center at Dallas Love Field (DAL), it becomes apparent that it is not an ordinary FBO. First, like Wilson Air Center, Business Jet Center incorporates a massive canopy in its architecture. Aircraft up to and including Gulfstream 550s can offload passengers out of the hot Texas sun or sheltered from the occasional thunderbumping gullywasher.
Inside, visitors are greeted with the Glass Palace, a private executive communications center that is lighted by fiber optics. Hanging art and sculpture accent the terminal complex and the four executive conference rooms. A private dining area overlooks the airport and offers a unique view of the lights of downtown Dallas.
Robert Wright is the chairman of Business Jet Services, which includes the Business Jet Center and Business Jet Enterprises, a sales organization specializing in large- and midsize business jets. Wright is a veteran of 30 years in the Dallas-area real-estate business, with a particular eye for business development.
The designer’s eye belongs to his wife, Mary Brown Wright, a former fashion model and buyer. She is the founder and president of Medical Space Design, a 25-year-old interior design firm serving hospitals, group-practice offices, corporate offices, banks, churches and libraries. A separate division was created to design and refurbish corporate aircraft. It has completed more than 50 projects in 15 years.
Stephanie Jordan is general manager of Business Jet Center. She told AIN, “There are seven FBOs on Dallas Love Field, and we have about a 26-percent market share. Our hangars have been filled for the past three years. We’re in the process of building a new 30,000-square-foot hangar and it’s also filled–with a waiting list. And there is other empty hangar space available on the airport right now.” The leasehold covers some 22 acres, including the 22,000-sq-ft terminal/office. One year ago, Business Jet Center completed a six-and-a-half-acre ramp expansion project that Jordan said comes in particularly handy during the “busy hours” when fractional operators tend to concentrate their arrivals and departures.
Pilots appreciate the flight-planning center with WSI weather terminal and clearance delivery, private sleeping quarters with showers, and complimentary bagels, fresh fruit, juice, tea, lemonade, coffee, popcorn and fresh-baked cookies. Business Jet Center’s location offers quick and easy access to downtown Dallas.
Soon, fans of Business Jet Center at DAL will be able to visit a sister facility at Oakland International Airport (OAK), Calif. Already operating from temporary buildings, the Business Jet Center at OAK started renovating the old airline terminal building, and well known FBO customer-service specialist Sheila Opitz has been enlisted as general manager of the new facility. Jordan is excited about the historical aura of the Oakland site, and said the terminal will accent the 1930s-vintage retro architecture and decor, while incorporating all the amenities of a 21st-century FBO. “We expect to open the refurbished terminal in June or July,” she said.
No. 5 - Jet Aviation Teterboro (TEB)
At two years old, the new terminal building at Jet Aviation Teterboro ranks as one of the most functionally elegant in the country. But general manager Mike Szczechowski knows full well that a beautiful building is not enough. He told AIN, “Service is everything. Most pilots understand that fuel prices in the New York area aren’t going to be among the lowest in the country, but they expect a level of service to match the price.”
Part of the way to do that, said Szczechowski, is to know the market and do what it takes to provide added value to customers’ visits. He said, “One example is how we leverage our relationships with other customers. Both Universal Weather and Air Routing International are tenants in our facility. That makes for a valuable resource for our FBO customers who travel overseas. And Teterboro is a busy jumping-off point for international travel.”
Jet Aviation has also turned a negative into a positive. Since 9/11, when you could stand on the Jet Aviation ramp and see the smoke rising from Ground Zero, security rules have dictated that no passenger vehicles are allowed on the ramp. Jet Aviation added hotel-style baggage trolleys and a dedicated concierge service to better welcome arriving passengers who pass through the lobby to waiting ground transportation on the street side.
Even in the shadow of the skyline of New York City, where real estate is among the most expensive anywhere in the world, Jet Aviation Teterboro is the largest FBO in the chain, with 1.1 million sq ft of hangar, office, workshop and ramp space. Its nine hangars cover 214,474 sq ft. Teterboro is among the busiest general aviation airports in the country, and Jet Aviation is one of the most popular FBOs on the field. Located at the south end of the runway complex, it sits on secure property separate from much of the general activity surrounding the rest of the airport.
Szczechowski stressed that Jet Aviation has renewed its emphasis on maintenance at Teterboro, and expects to announce several OEM service-center agreements over the next few months. “Having such agreements allows us to provide an important service for transient customers who have a maintenance need, as well as our based tenants,” he said.
With its solid rating from 468 respondents in the survey (the most by far of any of the top 30), Jet Aviation Teterboro proves that having a New Jersey attitude can still mean top levels of service.
Survey Says: Most Improved FBO, and a Stand-out Airport
The management at Signature Flight Support usually doesn’t have much to cheer about when the AIN FBO survey comes out. It’s rare that one of the chain’s 40 facilities makes an appearance among the top-rated FBOs. This year, however, not only did Signature at Denver Centennial Airport (APA) climb into the top 20, it exhibited the most profound improvement among all 286 FBOs included in the report. Signature APA improved 92 slots, from 108 last year to 16 this year.
In fact, aircraft operators lucky enough to count APA as one of their destination airports have their pick of three FBOs that rated in the top 20. Also on this list are Denver Jet Center and TAC Air, making Centennial one of the premier destination airports among respondents to this year’s survey.
Asked to comment on Signature’s dramatic improvement, area general manager Craig Teasdale cited a combination of factors. He told AIN, “Signature’s new Net Power fuel discount program has helped a lot. Our national sales teams are able to work with regular customers, chain-wide, to hammer out reasonable fuel deals.” He also cited Signature’s investment in training, facilities development and personnel development. Teasdale added, “Safety is always the top consideration.”
He also said Signature’s location on the airport has been transformed from an Achilles’ heel to a major asset. “Three-and-a-half years ago, when we built this facility, there was no north-south access road on the airport. You could throw a rock from one side of the runway to the other, but it took 20 minutes to get there by driving.” Now, with a new access road on the airport’s east side, the trip takes four minutes, according to Teasdale, who also cited the location’s relative isolation as a benefit. “We’re not on the side with the T-hangars and all the other FBOs, so we’re more isolated. Our customers see that as a more secure position. We have only one entrance to the ramp and it’s controlled. With better road access, we’re now the new front door to Centennial.”
Teasdale said Signature APA increased fuel sales by 22 percent last year and is on track for similar increases this year. He said market share on the airport is also on the uptick, especially among transient customers, which constitute a relatively low 40- to 45 percent of fuel sales.
The FBO manager credits his competitors with providing the drive to improve: “We’re on the second-busiest business aviation airport in the country, with some of the highest-level competition. We have to dedicate ourselves to provide the best service–push every day. The number-one reason for any success we enjoy is our employees and management. It’s the people.”
This year, AIN added some changes to its annual survey. No longer is it limited to North America, as FBOs and handling agents in the Caribbean and Central and South America were included in the evaluation process. In many cases, the destinations represented are seasonal–with little or no business for much of the year, sprinkled with a few on-season months of intense activity. Such facilities have unique requirements, both from the point of view of the FBO operator and the aircraft operators who patronize them.
Business aviation in Latin America covers a wide swath of sophistication, from modern airports and FBOs that rank with the state-of-the-art in the U.S., to dirt strips with little or no service. Across the board, this year’s ratings show that South American handling agents are found lacking when it comes to satisfying business aviation crews accustomed to North American FBOs. In the Caribbean, FBOs at Nassau, the Bahamas, did pretty well, while those in Grand Cayman, Saint Maarten and Saint Thomas left much to be desired. In Mexico, services at Cancun International Airport were rated in the mediocre range, but pilots were favorably impressed with Avemex and SAE, two handling agents at Mexico City Toluca Airport (MMTO).
Write-in submissions are an important component of the annual AIN FBO survey. Though it may be rare that an FBO gets enough write-in tabulations to be included in the final report, the number of responses provides vital input on selecting FBOs to be included on next year’s survey form. In addition, the ratings give AIN a heads-up on top-performing FBOs at lesser-traveled business-aviation locations.
AIN’s policy is that any FBO notching 10 or more write-in evaluations will be included on next year’s form. DB Aviation at Waukegan (Ill.) Airport (UGN) topped this year’s write-ins with 13 evaluations and qualifies to appear on the list for next year. Of the baker’s dozen who evaluated DB Aviation, most thought pretty highly of the facility. Its overall average rating was an impressive 8.269 out of 9.0.
As impressive as that rating is, to ensure a sufficient evaluation base, AIN requires at least 40 evaluations for an FBO’s rating to appear in this report (25 for non-U.S. facilities). But experience has shown that, once an FBO is listed, the number of evaluations is bound to go up. For example, Wal-Mart-owned Beaver Lake Aviation in Rogers, Ark., received 12 write-in evaluations in the 2002 FBO survey and was therefore placed on the evaluation form for this year’s survey. It received responses from 142 AIN readers who received survey forms. Million Air Nassau, the Bahamas, received 34 write-ins last year and 188 evaluations from the form for this year’s survey.
So to those readers who receive the survey forms, please continue to write in FBOs that you patronize. You are our first line of reconnaissance in seeking out facilities to add to next year’s survey form.