FBO Profile: Trip-planning firm eyes market outside the U.S.

 - August 27, 2007, 10:20 AM

It might seem as if Universal Weather & Aviation doesn’t belong in a profile of FBO chains, but the aircraft handling and weather information company does own true FBOs. It also has a vast network of handlers and handling partners all over the world. As more airports around the world recognize the benefits of allowing companies to build traditional FBOs, Universal is in a unique position, with employees who have knowledge of local market conditions and relationships with airport authorities already in place at dozens of locations. This gives the company a leg up on competitors who are approaching an airport about building an FBO.

Universal now has its own FBO-type facilities in Aruba, Australia, Beirut, Hawaii, Italy, London, Mexico, Paris, Singapore, Spain and Venezuela. In some locations, local airport authorities made it possible to build a private terminal facility, which is sometimes shared by other ground-handling companies, as is common in Europe. In others Universal has its own facilities.

The level of resources that Universal provides at an airport depends on many factors, including the amount of traffic, the needs of customers and the attitude of local airport authorities. In the U.S., it’s common for most airports to have at least one FBO, but that is not at all the case around the world. Most airports outside the U.S. instead have multiple ground-handling providers–local and large companies such as Universal.

After operating at a particular airport for a while, Universal can analyze the local traffic situation and see if there is potential to open an office or even an FBO. “Sometimes we have problems in emerging markets,” said Adolfo Aragon, vice president of Universal Aviation, the company’s ground-handling division. “These kinds of services are new for them.” Lack of facilities and the space to build new hangars and offices is also a significant limitation, he said.

At its most basic, Universal’s mission is like that of most FBOs: do whatever is necessary to facilitate the trip and get the passengers and crew through the destination airport seamlessly. To accomplish this, Universal’s trip support specialists do much more than an FBO, such as provide weather information, flight planning and any services required for flying in other countries and arrange or provide FBO services at the destination.

Even at the locations where the company provides traditional FBO services, customers still use Universal for handling on trips outside the U.S., according to trip support specialist Phil Linebaugh. “Handling internationally is night-and-day different from [in] the U.S.,” he said. “Here you pick up the phone and say, ‘I’m coming.’ International locations are completely different.”

With so many fees involved in foreign travel, pilots need help figuring out
who to pay and how much. “It’s not a comfortable feeling,” he said, “when you land and open the door in Mexico, you could have 10 people standing there with their hands out. Our people know who are the right people to be paid.”

Like U.S. FBOs, Universal handlers and FBO personnel know the local providers of catering, ground transportation and security, and they also know how to find a hotel when rooms are full.

Linebaugh echoed Aragon’s comment about helping customers get through the airport. “Here it can be done,” he said, “but overseas it’s just not that easy.”

Linebaugh is used to working with customers flying to airports with no FBOs, and he often has to explain to flight crews flying there for the first time what to expect. Instead of landing and taxiing to a plush FBO with plenty of hangar space, he said, pilots do everything on the ramp. The Universal handler will meet the airplane and take everyone through customs, send the passengers on their way, then take care of the crew.

“We have to explain the way the rest of the world works,” he said. “It’s all handled on the ramp.” Where a handler proves his worth is when business aviation passengers fly to an airport where the local authorities insist on mingling private aircraft and airline passengers and a few large airliners have just pulled up to the gate. At many airports, knowledgeable handlers can help passengers and pilots circumvent the long lines in the customs arrival halls.

“It’s tough to tell your CEO that he’s got to stand in line with all these people,” Linebaugh said. “It boils down to security and the services they’re paying for.”

When customers travel to Universal FBOs, such as the company’s recently refurbished Paris Le Bourget facility, it makes Linebaugh’s job much easier because there is less back-and-forth communication about all the services available at the FBO.

Linebaugh sees growing interest for airports to add new general aviation facilities. “The prime example is the new general aviation terminal in Beijing,” he said. “[The Chinese] realized that general aviation aircraft were going into Beijing regularly. And China is a hot spot. We’re seeing more and more [growth] throughout Europe, especially U.S.-style FBOs. They realize that CEOs and passengers are no longer happy operating from the general aviation ramp and being run through the main terminal.”

Universal is currently negotiating to open an office in Beijing, he said, in anticipation of a surge of traffic flying to the 2008 Olympics. Already it looks as if there will be parking problems and new procedures to handle the increase in traffic, he said.

In May, Universal opened a new FBO in Aruba. Before that opened, Aruba was a typical non-U.S. destination where business jet passengers were herded through the main terminal. Now flying into Aruba is much easier, with customs clearance handled inside the FBO.

The company is not afraid of more challenging destinations, either, and recently opened a new office in Beirut’s general aviation terminal. The Beirut facility, Linebaugh said, is extremely secure, with multiple screenings required to gain access to the ramp, local military armed guards and plenty of security cameras. “Corporate aircraft flying into Beirut are high profile. They want to keep it as safe as possible. It’s probably one of the safest areas in the Middle East,” he said.

“Asia is presenting new opportunities for everybody,” said Aragon. “India in the next three years will receive a new aircraft every three days. It’s a huge emerging market, but India is having challenges finding crews and other services, such as maintenance. The goal for all of Universal is to try to work with the airport authorities on how we can provide better services and support.”

Airport authorities are generally willing to talk to companies such as Universal about opening offices and building facilities, Aragon said, but their focus is still on airline aviation. The rapid growth of business aviation, said a Universal spokeswoman, “is so new to them, that’s where the education process comes in. We meet with them and explain, and often what we’re proposing will help.”

Universal handles about 100,000 corporate and commercial aircraft per year outside the continental U.S. but including Hawaii and Puerto Rico, according to Aragon.

Employees outside the office are typically locals, he said, “because they know the airport and the procedures better than us.” Universal has its own training department and certifies handlers using NATA’s Safety 1st program. Because some of the local handlers do not speak English, Universal often has to translate training materials. Employees also receive training about how the Houston headquarters trip-support operation works, Aragon said, “so we can provide better communication throughout all our offices.”