IFBOA: independent FBOs benefit from cooperation

 - December 1, 2008, 6:03 AM

Independent FBOs face problems different from those of their chain counterparts, whose sheer size often makes it easier for them to address challenges. The Independent Fixed-Base Operators Association (IFBOA) held its first conference September 11 and 12 to help independent FBOs share information and best practices about how to tackle the curveballs of professional life. Held at Rectrix Aerodrome Center at Barnstable Municipal Airport in Hyannis, Mass., the meeting attracted a variety of FBOs and exhibiting companies.

Founded by John Wraga, Bedford, Mass.-based IFBOA exists to help independent FBOs work together. With many bases around the world, FBO chains have more buying power when dealing with vendors, and IFBOA can help smaller FBOs by consolidating members as a single buying bloc to suppliers.

IFBOA’s other goal is to help FBOs deal with local airport issues, a constant problem affecting the FBO business as each airport’s owner is a different entity and the way they work with FBOs is inconsistent.

Services available to IFBOA members include a partnership agreement with Jet Fleet International offering low-rate FBO merchant credit-card processing, legal services available from The Harmonie Group and a general manager training and testing program. The Jet Fleet International program is important for FBOs as credit-card processing fees are a significant expense and, as a percentage of each sale, keep rising as fuel prices climb.

The Harmonie Group is a network of independent law firms, many with aviation defense practice groups, available for consultation by any IFBOA member for ongoing legal issues or in case of emergency. Four Harmonie Group lawyers gave a presentation on FBO legal exposures, helping attendees understand issues such as line-service liability, hold-harmless agreements, hazardous material spills, prepurchase inspections and maintenance liability.

J.D. McHenry, president of training company Global Jet Services, delivered a concentrated version of his company’s aviation leadership and management training to the IFBOA attendees. “The reality is this is a highly technical field,” McHenry told the IFBOA members. “The problem is that we often forget to train successors into management positions.” Global Jet’s leadership and management training course normally lasts for five days, and Global Jet is developing online FBO line service training programs.

Former NTSB member and FBO owner John Goglia is president of IFBOA, and he delivered a presentation on emergency preparedness, to help FBOs understand how to deal with accidents. “Do you have an emergency plan?” he asked. “When is the last time you looked at it?”

Accidents now commonly result in a visit from the FBI seeking records that might be useful in a criminal case. “How are your [customer service reps] going to know what to do?” Goglia asked. Other law-enforcement agencies might get in on the act, he said. “The competing badges are going to take your records. You’re going to need a process to photocopy everything. It’s a lot easier if you have electronic records.” He added, “Make sure to keep copies of the logbooks, away from the airplane.” To protect an FBO’s interests in the event of an accident, Goglia concluded, “It’s all about pre-planning. We don’t do a good job of it.”

The IFBOA conference gave participating FBOs the opportunity to share ideas and discuss issues during the open discussion segments. IFBOA board member Brian Batty, manager of FBO relations for NetJets, offered many good ideas generated by visits

to dozens of FBOs every year. “You don’t have to have a Taj Mahal,” he said, “but you do have to have service.”

Batty sees plenty of FBOs that don’t understand the basics, such as acknowledging the presence of people who enter the FBO from the street-side entrances instead of the ramp.

One of Batty’s biggest issues is dirty bathrooms. He suggests having FBO staff members walk through the bathrooms several times a day to check on cleanliness and stocking of supplies. “Be cognizant of pushes,” he said. Too often, a large group of passengers arrives and messes up the bathrooms, then if no one is scheduled to clean right away, the bathrooms remain messy for the next customers. “We’re not looking for the cheapest price on the field,” Batty said. Service and fair value are more important.

“It’s always the little things that exceed customer expectations,” said McHenry. “People will pay a higher price for better service.”

World Fuel’s Summer Austin provided fascinating insights into fuel buying during a session on fuel issues. Austin suggested that FBOs can save hundreds of dollars on each delivery by negotiating better prices from distributors and working with contract fuel companies such as World Fuel Services. FBOs also give up revenue by not pricing fuel correctly, selling their fuel based on the average price paid for the load instead of basing it on what is happening in the market.

The next IFBOA conference is planned for the second quarter of next year, according to Wraga, and will likely be held in the New York City metropolitan area.