Jet Aviation Geneva: Different challenges for European, U.S. Facilities

 - July 5, 2007, 7:23 AM

One of the great challenges for an FBO company seeking to build a chain is to strike gold not only with facilities in the U.S. but also in countries whose culture and business environment call for distinctly different recipes for success. Jet Aviation has long offered customers its brand of service at a variety of U.S., Middle Eastern, European and Asian locales. The company has FBOs in Singapore, Saudi Arabia, Dubai, Germany, Switzerland, the UK and the U.S.

As more business jet operators fly to different countries, chains with multiple bases around the world are seeing increased business from customers seeking a familiar FBO face. A visit to Jet Aviation’s Geneva base after the EBACE show in May demonstrated the contrasts and similarities between the company’s facilities in the U.S. and Europe.

The most obvious difference is apparent as soon as you walk through the front door at Geneva Jet Aviation. Most U.S. FBOs, Jet Aviation included, have a lot more space than European FBOs. Airports in Europe simply were not built with the idea that people might enjoy flying their own airplanes instead of airliners. And as land around airports was developed, little consideration appears to have been given to ensuring that space was available to accommodate growth of non-airline facilities.

At Geneva, Jet Aviation shares a private terminal building with TAG Aviation and PrivatPort. The lobby is small, and as passengers arrived for post-EBACE departures, luggage and people waiting for departure slots filled the available space. Slots are used only during busy events such as EBACE and the annual Geneva auto show.

Contrast this with a typical U.S. Jet Aviation FBO, where even though there are multiple competing FBOs, Jet Aviation has plenty of space to accommodate passengers and flight crew and ramp area for transient airplanes, as well as storage hangars.

At Geneva, the ramps belong to the airport, not the individual FBOs. And hangar space for tenants is rare. The private terminal was built about five years ago and offers more space and better facilities than Jet Aviation’s previous facility, according to Bernard Ratsira, director of private airplane handling.

Because of the limited ramp space available, business jets must park else-where on the airport, then Ratsira or a team member will drive to the airplane to pick up passengers and luggage.

The same is true when departing, except at Geneva there is the added wrinkle of clearing customs. During this visit, we had to clear customs to gain access to the ramp so Ratsira could show me around. At U.S. port-of-entry airports, the customs office is usually separate from FBOs, and after arriving business jets have to taxi first to customs then to the FBO. Before the new private terminal was built, FBOs such as Jet Aviation were separate from the customs office, according to Heinz Aebi, senior v-p for corporate marketing and communications.

Another major difference between Jet Aviation Geneva and its U.S. counterparts is security. At European airports authorities don’t differentiate between business aviation crew and passengers and people on airliners; all have to go through the same level of security.

The terminal’s three FBOs share a central passenger lounge, which passengers use before funneling through customs and security, including X-ray machines for luggage and magnetometers for passengers.

At U.S. FBOs located at airline-served airports, FBO security remains minimal compared with a setup such as Geneva’s; at U.S. FBOs located on airline-served airports where security is more stringent, FBOs either have an escort follow passengers and crew to the aircraft or buzz them onto the ramp after making sure they are qualified to be there.

The way airplanes are fueled is another element of the contrast between U.S. and European FBOs, although that is changing slowly. Recently, FBOs in Dublin, Ireland; and Nice, France; have taken on fuel delivery duties by obtaining permission to lease fuel trucks and train line staff to pump fuel into customer airplanes. This avoids the perennial complaint that airport fueling operations run by oil companies are beholden to airlines and serve general aviation traffic only after taking care of airline customers.

“While you make money in the U.S. with fuel sales,” said Aebi, “that is not the case in Europe.” Instead, FBOs make a profit by charging fees for handling services and use of facilities.

With just one runway, Geneva faces traffic constraints that allow only 36 movements per hour, but the airport authorities work closely with the FBOs, inviting them to the table when new projects are under consideration.