Service People proves its name isn’t just a gimmick

 - January 28, 2008, 5:23 AM

This is an FBO? In the office Mozart plays softly on the radio, and the warm smell of fresh coffee drifts across the room from the corner kitchen. Under an antique wooden desk, a contented English spaniel snores softly, ignoring the occasional static from the nearby unicom. At the desk, owner and manager Barbara Loehnert works quietly. As an FBO, Service People has more in common with grandma’s kitchen–warm, comfortable and friendly.

It is not an ambience that Loehnert and her co-owner/brother Knud strive to achieve. It simply is what it is.

Some 16 years ago there was neither an FBO nor a general aviation terminal at Hamburg International. Executive and VIP aircraft services were provided, albeit grudgingly, by the airport. At that time Knud Loehnert was working for a European charter operator and his younger sister Barbara was helping. When a charter customer asked if the operator could arrange ground handling in Hamburg, he was told that it was not possible. Knud and Barbara quietly disagreed, and the idea of an FBO at the airport was born.

The Loehnerts started from scratch, said Barbara, in 1988. They leased a one-room office and the crew car was the same van the Loehnerts used to drive to and from work. “There was not even a parking apron for visiting airplanes,” recalled Barbara.

That was 15 years ago. Today, Service People is a quietly successful FBO. It is, in fact, the only FBO at the sprawling airport on Hamburg’s outskirts. Truth be known, there probably isn’t enough business to support two facilities.

Despite the city’s status as the most wealthy in Germany, there are no major events that draw large numbers of business aircraft owners and operators, such as annual sports championships, political conventions or even seasonal tourism. The only substantial increase in business may come in 2012. Hamburg hopes to host the Summer Olympics that year. As the only FBO at the airport, Loehnert expects it would be named as the general aviation host facility for the event.

There are hundreds of major companies in Hamburg, spanning aerospace, shipping, shipbuilding and printing. But, according to the Loehnerts, few of them have flight departments, and most are more likely to fly by airline than to charter a business jet. Only a dozen business aircraft are based at Hamburg, 10 of them handled by Service People.

But if there are no peak weeks or months or major events as a draw, business is nevertheless steady, with a daily average of about 12 aircraft movements. It’s enough to pay the rent and a little more, but Barbara Loehnert said business is slowly returning to more profitable pre-9/11 levels. She estimates that the combination of the 2001 terrorist attacks and the economic nosedive in the U.S. resulted in an initial drop in business of about 70 percent, and forced the layoff of two line workers, reducing the total staff to eight. “We’re also not being helped much by our own economy,” she added, noting that many German business executives that had been passing through the FBO are now traveling on the airlines.

However, the Loehnerts have been contracted for the past year to provide aircraft handling for Lufthansa Technik’s VIP aircraft, which helps Service People’s bottom line. The FBO is also the general aviation agent for Air BP, and it provides a broad range of standard FBO services, from arranging customs and passport control to aircraft detailing. The staff also handles hotel and rental car reservations, orders for catering and can arrange for linen and dish washing. Crew cars are available, and the most popular seems to be the tiny, two-seat Smart Car. “We actually have crewmembers who call ahead and specifically ask if the Smart Car is available,” said Barbara Loehnert.

For visitors, the 1,200-sq-ft facility includes a lounge with cable television, kitchen, showers and a flight-planning room. There are multiple telephone lines for crew convenience, as well as Internet access that includes regular German weather updates and additional connections for laptop computers.

Service People’s terminal space is leased from the airport. Hangar space immediately adjacent to the facility is substantial and can accommodate ultra-long-range business jets. Service People also leases a small portion
of the hangar.

There is extensive aircraft parking on the ramp adjacent to the BP fuel site, about 200 yards from the FBO. Ramp space in front of the facility is limited and restricted to quick turnarounds and aircraft housed in the adjacent hangar.

The sagging U.S. and Germany economies have had an effect on Service People’s handling charges. The fee for a Learjet, previously about $100 ($107) has risen to $155 ($165). It was the first increase in almost four years.

The in-and-out handling charge begins at $155 ($165) for aircraft up to 33,069 lb (15,000 kg) and tops out at $407 ($502) for aircraft up to 132,276 lb (60,000 kg). There is a peak handling surcharge of $200 ($214) for arrivals or departures between 6 a.m. and 6:30 a.m. and between 9 p.m. and 11 p.m. For handling between 9:01 p.m. and 5:59 a.m., a $300 ($320) surcharge applies. Other charges include aircraft cleaning at $40 ($43) an hour, $17.90 ($19) for bank transfers to cover landing fees and overflights and $40 ($43) to pick up catering in the downtown Hamburg area.

Crews and passengers coming through the FBO tend to be regulars, many on a first-name basis with the Loehnerts and their assistant manager, Wim Van Vlaenderen. All three speak fluent German and English, and Vlaenderen also speaks Spanish, French and Dutch.

Barbara Loehnert said when crews check in before arrival, they will often ask if Nashua and Szechuan are on duty. At least one of them is always on duty, she said. Nashua and Szechuan are the Loehnerts’ two English Springer spaniels.

Animals are, in fact, a passion with the Loehnerts. When not at the airport both can usually be found at a leased farm property outside Hamburg where they raise Scandinavian Fjell cattle for the market and Arabian horses for their personal pleasure. It’s a lifestyle that carries over to the FBO–warm, comfortable and friendly.

Service People is not housed in a grand high-rise facility of glass and chrome. There are no flashy promotions, no wall-mounted gas plasma television monitors, no hot tubs and no frozen steak giveaways. Just service.

Does it work? Apparently. In AIN’s European FBO Surveys, the facility has consistently been rated one of the best in Europe.

In the latest survey in 2001, the facility was second only to TAG Aviation Tempelhof among German FBOs, and then only by a couple of decimal points. Users voted it the best FBO in all of Europe in 1995 and 1997.

Asked how it is that a small FBO such as Service People can compete favorably with larger facilities with greater resources and cash to spend on promotional gimmicks, Barbara Loehnert appeared genuinely puzzled and paused to think of an answer. Her answer is what her customers have come to expect: “We do what we are supposed to do.”