2011 FBO Survey – The Americas: Top 10 FBOs

 - April 1, 2011, 4:00 AM

Printable version of the FBO Report, FBO Ratings and Readers Comments

1. J.A. Air Center, Aurora Municipal Airport (ARR), Sugar Grove, Ill.

J.A. Air Center has been in operation at Aurora Municipal Airport for little more than two years, and the privately owned FBO’s customer satisfaction ratings improved so much from the previous year that the facility catapulted itself not only onto the AIN FBO Survey’s top-10 list, but squarely into the number-one spot.

Operating initially at DuPage Airport, J.A. Air Center (the J.A. stands for Joliet Avionics) in 1995 sold its fuel concession rights to the county airport authority, which formed the DuPage Flight Center. Randy Fank, now J.A. Air Center’s operations manager, ran the J.A. FBO operation at DuPage, and left to manage the county-owned facility. He returned more than a decade later, when the company decided to reenter the FBO business, this time at Aurora, 13 miles away, and oversaw the construction of the $9.5 million structure, which opened in December 2008.

“We took an existing hangar, kept the steel beams and the roof and then gutted everything else out and rebuilt,” said Fank. “Outside of that we put a 25,000-sq-ft arrival canopy for aircraft to park under. [The canopy has a 29-foot tail height so it can fit [aircraft] all the way up to the G650 when that airplane comes out.” In addition to the canopy, the facility has approximately 100,000 sq ft of hangar space, and a 12,000-sq-ft terminal with a 5,000-sq-ft passenger lobby and 1,600-sq-ft pilots’ lounge. The company does not have landing, ramp or overnight fees, charges Fank decries as “nickel and diming the customers.”

The FBO provides aircraft charter, management and sales, a Part 145 repair facility, and one of the largest avionics shops in the country. Another offering is a separate aircraft detailing business that, according to Fank, has seen an approximately 70-percent increase in business over the last year, to go along with increases in the company’s other divisions. “The phones have been getting a lot busier, aircraft sales have been busier, the charter calls have been up tremendously, and maintenance is doing well,” said Fank. “FBO-wise we were up about 12 to 15 percent over the year before.” The company saw a boost of 35 percent in FBO business in January, and despite a blizzard that buried the airport for three days in February, Fank still expects business for the month to be up by 10 to 15 percent.

That comes as welcome news for an FBO that has had to cope with the downturn since the moment it opened at Aurora. “We have adjusted to the current environment, but have not let anyone go or had any layoffs,” Fank told AIN. “We simply have not hired when someone has left.”

The airport’s location west of Chicago on the I-88 corridor near the business centers of Naperville and Oak Brook (home of McDonald’s) serves to fuel J.A. Air Center’s enthusiasm for its growth. “We’re almost what you would call a diamond in the rough or a sleeper airport,” said Fank, who noted that the recent facility upgrades at the airport have drawn attention and even customers from DuPage. “As things continue to turn around, this airport is going to flourish over the next five years.”

2. Global Select at Sugarland Regional Airport (SGR), Sugarland, Texas.

While the name might have changed, the high level of service has remained the same at the Sugarland, Texas FBO, which rebranded itself over the past year. “For years we were just known as the FBO at Sugarland Regional Airport,” customer service and marketing manager Jodi Kaluza explained to AIN; “we were just nondescript.”

After being voted to several consecutive top-10 finishes in the AIN survey, the operators of the city-owned service provider chose to make a statement. “We decided it was really important to find a name that represents what we really are, something that felt a little bit more inclusive of the service that you are going to get when you come to Sugarland,” Kaluza said. 

For the past year, business has steadily increased at the Houston-area service provider, Kaluza noted. “We did not see the losses that a lot of the other FBOs were reporting because we’re in the oil economy,” she said. While the BP Oil platform explosion and subsequent spill that occurred a year ago was a disaster for much of the Gulf Coast, the FBO received a silver lining of sorts in the form of a steady stream of business aircraft traffic, shuttling BP executives and engineers from its U.S. headquarters in Houston to the response sites and back. “It was like a freeway from Houma, La., to Sugarland,” said Kaluza. “Unfortunately, it’s one of those things where you can’t be too excited because it was absolutely horrible for the Gulf Coast, but it did keep us afloat when things were starting to look really bad for other people.”

The FBO is currently home to approximately 50 turbine aircraft, and an $8 million airport improvement project now under way is aimed at increasing that number. An additional taxiway (Juliet) will provide access to a new area of seven lease sites to make room for more corporate flight departments. “We are a corporate airport, and one of my little taglines is  ‘air to chair in 15 minutes,’” said Kaluza. “We can get you into your meeting quicker than anywhere else because you are not going to be delayed.”

As for the level of service that has earned the FBO its recent recognition, Kaluza says it developed naturally based on the initial promise to the Sugarland community that the airport and FBO would not be a drain on local tax dollars. “For years we just had to support ourselves on our customer-service philosophy: we just want to try to make sure we give the customers an experience they won’t forget.” That extends to working closely even with the outside vendors that do business with Global Select’s customers. “Even when rental cars go wrong or hotels go wrong, it all comes back to the FBO, so we try to make sure that everybody is aligned with our philosophy,” she told AIN. “It’s really all about just meeting the customer’s needs and always trying to be proactive. Once you are in a reactive state, you’ve already messed up, in our opinion.”

3. XJet, Centennial Airport (APA), Englewood, Colo.

Another relatively new FBO making its debut in the top 10, XJet describes itself as so radically different that its advertising slogan proclaims, “It’s not an FBO–it’s XJet.” The service provider opened for business four-and-a-half years ago at Centennial Airport in Colorado as a private club for a group of wealthy jet owners, and was granted approval by the airport authority to begin offering FBO services soon after.

“What we did differently was we built the business model from the ground up on the [model of the] club for the based jet owner and pilot,” said XJet founder and CEO Josh Stewart. “We have 14 members in Denver who pay a premium for two things and two things only: service and facilities. According to the company, the “dues” from those 14 members cover the FBO’s operating costs, so the FBO does not have to rely on fuel sales, a revenue structure the company says gives it an advantage over the three other service providers on the field (a fourth caters specifically to helicopters).

While fuel is provided to the members at cost, XJet says it is able to charge non-members a margin small enough to make for attractive fuel pricing. “A traditional FBO, because it gets 90 percent of its revenue from fuel, is focused on fuel sales so it’s really in the commodities business, whereas we’re in the service and facilities business. It’s a totally different business model,” explained Stewart.

The company says it achieves its “7-star service” for members by creating lengthy dossiers for each aircraft owner, detailing their preferences and dislikes. “We leverage that great service, that great facility, and provide it to people who aren’t club members so when you fly into Denver as a transient, you’re really getting five-star service at a price better than our neighbors’,” Stewart told AIN.

Among the amenities offered are a “plush lounge, ultra-modern work stations and conference rooms, climate-controlled vehicle parking, an art gallery and a five-star on-site restaurant.” A concierge who greets each arriving aircraft extends the club atmosphere to all of the facility’s customers. According to XJet vice president Tom Perkins, jets account for 98 percent of the FBO’s traffic, the typical customer being a Part 91 corporate flight department in the energy or finance industries.

The airport’s proximity to some of the country’s most popular ski resorts also draws traffic, especially when weather hampers operations at Eagle County Regional Airport less than 100 miles away. “[Pilots] are typically en route when the weather goes bad,” he said, so they figure out how to get their passengers to Aspen and then worry about what they will do with the airplane. The FBO has seen a “tremendous” increase in traffic at the location over the past three months, and an increase of 50 percent over the past year. “As everybody else in these times has been cutting back on people and service, we’ve been increasing service,” he said. The company says it is in the planning and development stages for expanding its business model into locations throughout the U.S. and internationally.

4. Pentastar Aviation, Oakland County International Airport (PTK), Waterford, Mich.

AIN’s readers have ranked Pentastar’s Oakland County International Airport (PTK) location as one of their top-five FBOs in each of the last five years, and as one of 10 FBOs on the field, the company certainly can’t rest on its laurels. “The battle that we have is from a pricing perspective,” said Bob Sarazin, Pentastar’s vice president of FBO services. “If you look from a national perspective we have a competitive price, but [to be] competitive on the airport it gets pretty difficult.” Instead, the company has relied on its facilities and the quality of its service. “Many times [pilots] will step out and they will go to one of these FBOs and in short order they realize it’s not appropriate for their passengers or for themselves and the service that they need and then they’ll call back.”

To that end, the company–which also operates an FBO at Van Nuys Airport–seeks client feedback for each handling. “One of the significant things we’ve done is focused on a customer survey process so that we can ask our customers what it is they would like to see from our FBO and all our other services,” said Kellie Rittenhouse, the FBO’s director of customer relations. Over the past year, the company handed out more than 1,000 surveys to its customers. “We’d like to know that we are offering what it is they need, so that we can stay competitive with the other industry players and know that we are meeting the customer’s needs.”

The company, which began in 1964 as Chrysler’s in-house flight department, has come a long way since then and can service aircraft up to a Boeing 757. Among its additional services, Pentastar offers a 130,000-sq-ft Part 145 repair station; an Argus Platinum-rated aircraft charter management department that currently oversees 15 business jets and has a round-the-clock dispatch center; Type I and IV de-icing; an aircraft brokerage; and Fivestar Gourmet, its own in-house catering company.

Since it occasionally hosts professional sports teams visiting Motor City, Pentastar has its own attached jetway for large aircraft that leads into a building staffed by U.S. Customs.

Located 45 minutes from Detroit, the FBO was hurt by the economic woes that befell the auto industry. “In the Detroit metro area we’ve had a relatively depressed time, and through some attrition we were able to keep the levels of personnel that we had there,” Sarazin told AIN. I think we’ve moved to a little bit more part-time workforce. But we’re operating seven days a week, 24 hours a day, so this really works out for them.”

As the fortunes of the automakers have improved, along with renewed activity and visitation from suppliers, Sarazin regards the FBO’s future with optimism.  “We see nothing but good things. If the auto industry is doing well in Detroit, it will slowly trickle down to the aviation component here locally.”

5. Hangar 10, Charles B. Wheeler Downtown Airport, Kansas City (MKC), Mo.

Certainly the newest of the aviation service providers to make this year’s top-10 list, Hangar 10 at Kansas City’s Charles B. Wheeler Downtown (MKC) didn’t exist as a brick-and-mortar facility until this past October. “We moved from a five-wide trailer essentially,” said general manager Brad Chandler, describing the company that was started in May 2009.  “We called it a modular facility while we were in it, but now that we are out of it, it’s OK to call it a trailer, I guess.”

The new facility includes a 28,000-sq-ft terminal building, and its office space is overbooked. The 18 jets in its 29,000-sq-ft hangar and eight city-owned box hangars (which can accommodate aircraft up to a Hawker) represent 100 percent occupancy. Despite the facility having just opened, Hangar 10 plans to apply soon for permits to add another 22,000-sq-ft hangarage and another 18,000 sq ft of garage and office space.

While airport volume at MKC has dropped off in the past three years, Chandler believes that the new alternative Hangar 10 presents could spur activity. “There are some competition advantages here because the price of jet fuel that everybody is paying across the board is probably 20 percent lower, everybody has got a nicer facility because they’ve either moved into ours or the facilities elsewhere on the field have been improved, and I think everybody’s service level has improved quite a bit,” he said. “I think there will be growth in airport volume because of the more competitive environment [we have created].” 

Among the amenities offered at the new facility is a large fitness center that occupies a prime portion of building real estate. “It’s more than just an unleased office somewhere in the middle of the building,” said Chandler. “That was as much a cultural thought process as anything else, to say, “It’s important that our people have the opportunity to take care of themselves. Our based customers have the opportunity to use it, and the transients–once they’ve been here and come back–start bringing their stuff so they can use it.’”

Another appealing feature is the company’s own in-house catering department, which can prepare virtually anything for breakfast or lunch or even dinner, at a price it says is lower than those of most outside caterers. “The guy in the back of an airplane doesn’t really know what a gallon of jet fuel should cost, but he knows he shouldn’t be paying 40 bucks for a turkey sandwich,” Chandler told AIN. “I don’t want to have a Hangar 10 logo on something that he feels just ripped him off.”

In keeping with that customer value theme, the company is eschewing ramp fees. “We’d rather not charge [customers] a ramp fee and see what kind of courtesy fuel load we can earn out of them over time,” said Chandler. “We might not get something this time, but we’ll almost always get something the second and the third time, and our courtesy fuel loads are higher than they would have been had we had mandatory fuel loads to waive a fee. People really feel good about that.”

6. Tampa International Jet Center, Tampa International Airport (TPA), Tampa, Fla.

In business for just over six years, Tampa International Jet Center has spent half of its existence in the top 10 of AIN’s survey rankings. Its clientele in the construction and real estate industry suffered during the recent downturn, according to company president Phil Botana, who saw the number of based aircraft at the FBO fall from a high of 40 in 2007 to between 25 and 30 today. Yet, like many airports in the country, Tampa International has experienced an increase in business aircraft activity of late. “I think our airport’s total volumes were up about six or seven percent last year,” said Botana. “We enjoyed most of that so we were up about 15 percent over the year before.”

While the FBO has one immediate competitor on the field, the company now takes a more macro view of the playing field. “I think our industry is changing,” Botana told AIN. “Because the airplanes have become so efficient we find we’re competing as much with the location [the customer] left or where they are going to next, as well as with the guy next door, so we try to provide a high level of service,” he said, noting that the company has increased its market share at the airport in each of its six years of existence.

In explaining the success his company has experienced in a relatively short time, Botana views things from the perspective of his nearly four decades in the industry. “I think most FBOs think of themselves as a portal to get people from the airside of the airport to the streetside of the airport. We like to think of ourselves as an extension of the travel experience of the people who are riding in the back of the airplane.” The company has developed a set of minimum service standards that is applied to every airplane that pulls up on its ramp, whether it’s a single-engine airplane or a large-cabin jet. “Then we constantly look for ways to differentiate ourselves to fulfill any particular need of any particular customer,” he added.

In addition to 108,000 sq ft of hangar space, the FBO features a 12,500-square-foot canopy and on-site catering through a third-party vendor. Southern Air Systems, which operates a fleet of aircraft around the country and has its Part 145 MRO depot on the property, provides on-site maintenance services. Tampa International Jet Center recently ended is affiliation with AirBP, switching to Avfuel as its fuel provider, a move Botana hopes will help further increase his FBOs business. “We don’t strive to be the cheapest guy to do business with, but we try to provide competitive pricing. We feel if we can be competitive on the price and we provide a superior level of service, we’re giving [customers] a better value than they can get somewhere else,” he said.

7. Wilson Air Center, Memphis International Airport (MEM), Memphis, Tenn.

AIN’s readers regularly place Wilson Air Center’s Memphis facility on the top-10 list, due in no small part to a simple mandate from the company’s ownership. “We are not allowed to say no to a customer,” said Dave Ivey, Wilson Air’s vice president. “We try to accommodate the needs of the customer and not just say no. I challenge my employees to try to figure out how to do something, and we empower them to be able to make those decisions and [accommodate] special needs.” 

Over the past year, the company, which has been at Memphis International Airport since 1996, made a “significant upgrade” to the entire facility, including a remodeled lobby. Recently added at all the Wilson locations were pilot “relaxation rooms,” a blend of pilot lounge and snooze rooms, with subdued lighting, soothing music and water features, ideal for reading or concentrating without the distraction of a television. Ivey told AIN he is so pleased with the design of the rooms that he remodeled his own home office to replicate them.

One of the most popular features at the FBO is its 26,000-sq-ft canopy. “It’s an extension of our lobby, and we can fit six jets underneath that canopy at any given time to keep you out of the rain, the hot sun or the snow. Every customer gets off at our front door because we pull [the aircraft] under the canopy,” said Ivey. When that cabin door opens, disembarking passengers are greeted by an illuminated marquee welcoming them to Memphis by name. “People just love seeing their name up in lights,” he said.

Among the regular clients WAC Memphis serves is the music industry, which draws performers and other celebrities seeking to soak in the Blues. FedEx, which has its world headquarters in Memphis, has provided another draw for business aviation to the region, as major companies have established massive merchandise warehouses that require steady streams of management traffic to the area.

Despite these attractions, Ivey noted last year’s numbers at the facility were slow compared to other units in the chain. “Houston returned dramatically quickly, almost to pre-2008 levels, and Charlotte had some nice upticks in percentages, whereas Memphis has just been single-digit increases as opposed to getting back the 10- to 30-percent fuel volumes that most people around the country have lost over the recession.”

He noted that the facility currently is at full capacity, with approximately 25 turbine aircraft in its hangars and all office space rented. While some chain FBOs have cut back on on-site management in favor of regional managers to cut costs, the company has maintained senior staffers at each location and the facilities remain open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The chain recently began participating in the Shell AeroClass rewards program and has instituted a more aggressive fuel pricing program to boost business, according to Ivey. “We don’t just sell fuel on the airport; we compete with every FBO around the country,” he said.

8. Fargo Jet Center, Hector International Airport (FAR), Fargo, N.D.

“The facilities we’ve got in Fargo aren’t what you’d expect,” said Darren Hall, Fargo Jet Center’s (FJC) vice president of marketing. He’s come to expect the surprise of people landing at Hector International Airport (FAR), which serves a city of just 150,000 inhabitants. “It’s what you would expect if you were going to L.A. or Chicago or New York.” Because the upper Midwest airport boasts a 9,000-foot runway, 24-hour manned control tower and U.S. customs and a full-time crash rescue team (courtesy of the Air National Guard, which occupies part of the field) coupled with Fargo Jet Center’s FBO, one might be excused for mistaking it for one in a more cosmopolitan region.

Formed in 1995, the company competed against an existing provider that had served the airport for nearly two decades. FJC was initially supported by service contracts from its sister company Weather Modifications, which operates a worldwide fleet of atmospheric research aircraft. After several years of competition, the other provider on the field sold its facilities to FJC, which today is the sole aviation services company on the field.

FJC has an average of 55 movements per day and last year saw 23,000 passengers through its facility and had an increase of more than 13 percent in terms of jet-A gallons pumped over the previous year. “We certainly do a lot of business with aircraft coming to Fargo, but I would say a majority of our business is aircraft coming through Fargo and just doing a tech stop, going to Seattle or New York,” Hall told AIN. “When those people quit flying their airplanes we noticed that, but now we’ve noticed they are flying again because we’ve seen their quick turnarounds pick up in the last year.” Located on the great circle routes between the West Coast and Europe as well as Tokyo to the East Coast, the FBO at the “crossroads of the world” sees quite a bit of heavy iron such as Global Expresses and Gulfstreams.

Despite the quick turnarounds, the FBO’s staff still has time to show its stuff, according to Hall. “There’s a friendliness about the people who work here in taking care of people, not just airplanes. That makes our service a little bit different from somewhere else you may go, and that’s a Midwest thing. We really care about people and we want to take care of them, so we work hard at doing that, and we work hard at being professional at what we do.”

In addition to the approximately 170,000 sq ft of hangar space (more than half of which is heated) that currently houses nine jets and 15 turboprops, FJC also has maintenance and avionics shops, a charter department, flight school and aircraft sales division. In 2009 the company switched its fuel provider to Avfuel after a long affiliation with Texaco.

9. Wilson Air Center, Douglas International Airport (CLT) Charlotte, N.C.

Joining perennial top-10 list occupant Wilson Air Center’s Memphis location this year is another of the chain’s properties, which jumped from 19thplace last year. The company’s Douglas International Airport (CLT) facility is the largest and busiest of the company’s three (soon to be four with the opening of Chattanooga later this summer) locations, with 32 jets and 17 turboprops based there.

“Business has been positive,” said general manager Vince Papke. “Each month, year over year we’ve seen an increase in our fuel sales and I was encouraged by that. We had gains in our gallons 12 months in a row starting last December, and it continues.”

The FBO, the only GA services provider on the airport, recently underwent an interior refurbishment that saw a newly remodeled lobby, VIP lounge, conference rooms and pilot business center. The airport features runways up to 10,000 feet in length and in addition to catering to CLT’s general aviation needs, Wilson Air provides ground handling for charter airliner flights, servicing aircraft up to the size of Boeing 767s.

As at the other facilities in the chain, the effort at Charlotte has been on maintaining levels of customer service through the downturn. The facility remains open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and Wilson Air has maintained senior management positions at each facility. “There’s only so much you can cut, and we feel we just don’t want to fall into that counting pennies [mode] when the big picture is more important to us,” said Wilson Air vice president Dave Ivey. “We want to keep our customers loyal, so that when business does pick back up again we have a solid customer base.”

Aircraft arrivals at the FBO are met on the ramp by shuttle vans that carry passengers directly to the terminal. True to its hotel chain heritage (the chain was started by Robert Wilson, son of the late Holiday Inn founder Kemmons Wilson), a uniformed hotel-style concierge greets each arrival. It’s details such as these that make the difference, according to Papke. “We have a concierge. His name is Dexter, he’s been in the business five years and everyone knows him. That’s the relationship you establish with these individuals, these flight departments, the pilots, the passengers. These individuals flying in the back seat know Dexter, and that’s what makes the difference between being a good FBO or a great FBO. It’s the people; it’s the team.”

At the beginning of last year, Wilson Air also took over management of the former Wachovia flight department complex at CLT, boosting its hangar space to nearly 300,000 sq ft. Two of the three newly acquired hangars are currently serving as the temporary home of the Carolina Aviation Museum.

10. Banyan Air Services, Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport (FXE), Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

In late January last year, one of the 20,000-sq-ft hangars belonging to Fort Lauderdale-based Banyan resembled a cross between a medical supply warehouse and a Costco. Crates of medicines, boxes of surgical supplies, cases of bottled water, tents and other emergency goods were stacked 12 feet high in some cases, while forklifts raced to load pallets onto a nearly endless stream of business aircraft ranging from Caravans to Gulfstreams. As part of the emergency response to the Haiti disaster, company owner Don Campion offered the use of his facility as a staging area for the loading of aircraft on mercy missions. “That was a really rewarding time to see corporate America step up,” said Campion. “For that period between January 12 and April 1 when there was no airline service, business aviation filled a gap and the world saw a tremendous blessing.”

Campion founded Banyan in 1979 and this year it makes its fourth straight appearance on AIN’s top-10 list. “In a way you could say Banyan is a customer-service company that happens to be in the aviation business,” Campion told AIN. “Our focus is to partner with our customers and to build relationships with them, not to be a job shop or just a gas stop.”

More than three decades later, after several building changes, Banyan features a new on-ramp restaurant, turbine engine shop, maintenance and avionics facilities, one of the largest pilot shops in the country, and is home to approximately 100 turbine-powered aircraft. The company recently leased two new 20,000-sq-ft hangars to supplement its existing space for transient customers.

“The last 12 months have been good for Banyan,” said John Mason, its recently appointed director of FBO services. “We’ve seen a significant increase in our South American business and our hangars are 120 percent oversold; that’s why we put on the additional hangar space.”

Before the recent economic downturn, the company invested in advertising in South America. That advertising paid dividends as the resulting aviation traffic has helped sustain the FBO during the lean years. “As the U.S. economy continued to slow down, we continued to pick up because of our earlier marketing, which took us through 2009 and 2010 to much higher levels than we anticipated,” Campion told AIN. “Many of our South American customers call Banyan their home away from home.” To that end, the company’s repair station has Brazilian, Argentinean and Venezuelan certification. Banyan is also a gateway FBO to the Bahamas and works closely with the island chain’s ministry of tourism.