A first-class FBO upgrade on Sardinia's Costa Smeralda

 - August 12, 2008, 4:53 AM

The Italian island of Sardinia and its elite Costa Smeralda (Emerald Coast) resort area are not well known in North America, except perhaps to yachting and sailboat racing enthusiasts. But for four months of the high season (June through September), the newly renamed and refurbished Eccelsa (Italian for “Excellence”) general aviation handling facility at Olbia Airport (LIEO/OLB) handles some 85 percent of its annual throughput of 8,000 aircraft. With Eccelsa’s significant Middle Eastern clientele, those aircraft frequently include VIP Boeings–BBJs, 777s and 747s. On peak days, Eccelsa can see 140 aircraft movements, with as many as 60 aircraft on its ramp and apron at a time.

Within the past few years, development of general aviation in the Costa Smeralda area has taken some huge strides–both in facility development and recognition from local authorities and business developers. Eccelsa general manager Francesco Cossu told AIN, “People had to be convinced that the number of passengers on board an airplane isn’t necessarily the most important measure of how much it means to the local economy.”

Eccelsa is a division of Geasar, the management company that operates the entire airport, including its airline terminal. Most scheduled flights to and from Olbia are operated by Meridiana, the regional airline based at the airport and serving most major cities in Italy with a mixed fleet of MD-80s and BAe 146s. But general aviation is an increasingly recognized commodity in the high-end resort area.

Eccelsa recently completed phase one of a development program that will significantly improve its ability to handle its customers. Phase one included widening and clearing roadside access to the private terminal, which is located within walking distance of the airline terminal. The inside of the Eccelsa building (which dates back decades and has filled a number of roles, including that of cargo terminal) also received a pleasing facelift, with large sunny windows and skylights allowing the omnipresent Mediterranean sunlight to bathe the tile and soft-tone wood of the paneled walls. Views of the ramp and runway are interrupted only by the rows of aircraft lined up directly outside the main access doors.

At Cossu’s request, the airport recently approved a new policy whereby ultra-long-range Gulfstreams, Global Expresses and BBJs are parked directly in front of the terminal, while smaller jets and turboprops are parked farther out across the ramp. While the arrangement may be more cumbersome for moving airplanes around on the ramp, it better addresses the concerns of the passengers riding on the larger aircraft–a concept not lost on Eccelsa’s management.

The new layout of the terminal is noteworthy. It is divided between the passenger area to the left, with waiting areas, lounges, conference rooms and a secure VIP lounge; and the crew area to the right with its busy operations desk, quiet rooms, rest facilities with showers and flight-planning areas. One unique aspect of the new terminal layout is the space devoted to offices for outside vendors, including an aircraft charter firm and a yacht broker/manager. Yacht leasing is a popular tourist activity on Costa Smeralda.

Eccelsa has also recognized another profit center in its gift shop and glass display cases designed to be outlets for local merchants. As in an airline terminal, the shop sells local products, such as decorative bottles of limoncella, a lemon-based liqueur, as last-minute gifts for outbound passengers. Glass cases display products on sale in some of the local shops, including Cartier watches, Gucci clothing and so on. Also, Eccelsa sells billboard space in the terminal, and tasteful advertisements greet passengers passing through.

In fact, the layout of the terminal brings to mind a hybrid of a traditional North American FBO design and that of a VIP airline terminal. There are signs directing traffic to “arriving flights” and “departing flights” posted on the expensive wood-paneled walls. Even the tiled décor and appointments in the rest rooms (blue in the men’s, pink in the women’s) are worthy of the headquarters of any Fortune 100 firm. After all, Italy is the source of some of the best tile and ceramics in the world.

Cossu told AIN that one of his top concerns is maintaining the motivation of a staff that is, essentially, seasonal. He said it would be impossible to properly train and motivate a staff for only four months, and importing seasonal help is simply not practical. His solution is to encourage most of his staff to live on Sardinia year round and guarantee them eight months of work, despite the four-month high season. Almost all the staff lives on the island year round.

One exception is customer-service representative Fatia Sif, a Parisian of Moroccan descent who speaks fluent Arabic. She “commutes” from Paris for the season. Cossu also has an Arabic-speaking employee on his line-operations staff.

The main profit center for Eccelsa remains its handling charges, with aircraft rated in six categories and charged by the metric ton for services. The FBO is in the process of bidding for the general aviation fuel concession on the airport, currently held by oil companies Agip and Exxon, though it’s unlikely that fuel profits will replace handling charges as the sole source of income for the business.