LABACE Convention News

FBOs are Jewels in Sorocaba's Crown

 - August 14, 2017, 12:51 PM
Embraer’s first FBO, managed by Universal Aviation at Sorocaba Airport, represents a mix of impressive MRO capability and passenger service. The amenities are sleek and minimalist in their design, reflective of the trend in aircraft interiors.

The two Brazilian FBOs that rank highest in AIN's 2017 FBO survey opened in the past three years and are newcomers to the list. Both sit side-by-side at Sorocaba's Bertram Luiz Leupolz Airport (SDCO) and break from the usual Brazilian practice of mixing FBO services and charter operations.

World Way Aviation (WWA), which achieved Brazil’s best score in the survey by placing in the top 20 percent worldwide, opened early in 2015 in the country's largest FBO hangar, with doors opening to a 72-meter (236-foot) free span, and able to accommodate aircraft as large as the Lineage 1000. Next door, Embraer's first and so far only FBO has welcomed aircraft since 2014, and it shares a 20,000-square-meter (215,278-sq-ft) hangar with an Embraer MRO facility, filled with Phenoms through Legacys when AIN visited before the opening of this year’s LABACE show.

Five years ago there was only dirt where the hangars stand. In 2014, jets arriving for the World Cup filled the airport's available ramp space. But when WWA opened in 2015, the recession was deepening. “Established firms can lose customers or business in a recession,” commented FBO manager Thiago You, “but when you're starting from zero, there's nowhere to go but up.” He isn’t leaving growth to statistical inevitability, but is following a strategy based on the Sorocaba Airport location, constantly raising the bar for quality of service and focusing on larger aircraft.

Sorocaba's location, less than an hour and a quarter from São Paulo's business center (except at rush hour), is comparable to that of other business aviation airports, according to You. “Take [Mexico City's] Toluca or Teterboro [just outside New York]. We're the right distance.” Airports located closer to major cities have little parking space and often require operators to fly in, drop off passengers, then fly elsewhere. “Our profile is large aircraft,” he explained, and many of these owners also own a helicopter, which they fly from the city to Sorocaba.

Constantly improving service is the path that You sees, and he frequently returns to the role of the FBO in safeguarding a major asset, noting that most business jet damage happens in the hangar. “We always have two to three wingwalkers when moving a jet,” he said.

WWA is also undergoing certification under the International Standard for Business Aviation Handling (IS-BAH) process, which was developed by the International Business Aviation Council (IBAC). “It’s a basic requirement,” You said.

WWA was the first Air Elite FBO in Brazil, and You noted the exacting requirements needed to achieve membership. World Fuel Services Network also teams with WWA and has its office in the FBO.

On the customer service front, WWA operations supervisor Augusto Nunes observed that “Customer service isn’t just a receptionist.” The company’s customer service team undergoes training at the Ritz-Carlton Leadership Center.

A VIP lounge faces the runway on the ground floor, amply supplied with coffee, snacks, reading matter and an enormous television. A second private lounge is available, as is a conference room. The ground side passenger entrance lobby has a double-height ceiling. Crew facilities include a dedicated lounge with a flight-planning room and hotel-style suites, “the best in Sorocaba,” You claimed. A gym is ready for equipment, and a terrace overlooking the runway has plugs and plumbing for a kitchen or bar. The architectural tone of the WWA FBO is, like that of Embraer next door, the sort of understated elegance found in fleet jet interiors, with fine materials and muted colors. There's a refreshing lack of gold-plated details and garish marble. A car is available for transporting crew, a dark sedan unremarkable in appearance, but bulletproof.

The FBO hangar is only half of WWA's story. Like Embraer’s hangar next door, the building is divided in two. A second bay, nearly as large as the first, is set up for an MRO operation, with rooms around the perimeter for specialized workshops. So far, a tenant hasn't stepped forward, but You said that it was built to serve either as an MRO or as a hangar.

You and WWA don't have plans to expand beyond a single, independent FBO, arguing that the company is already located in São Paulo, where the Brazilian fleet is concentrated. “There will be excess capacity,” You said. “Two to three years ago, business aviation growth was in the double digits, but no longer.”

Embraer's FBO is managed by Universal Aviation (Booth 1006).

Sorocaba’s Growing Aviation Ecology

Sorocaba has a business aviation calling,” said an Embraer spokesman. “It’s a Brazilian Le Bourget. All the big players are here,” he added, referring to the Dassault, Gulfstream and Embraer MRO facilities, as well as Pratt & Whitney Canada, among others clustered at the airport. While Embraer has Pratt & Whitney certification, depending on workload, Embraer can call on the engine manufacturer, he said, “and their hangar is right nearby. They can send their team over to work on the engine here.”

The robust aviation community also means that qualified labor is available in Sorocaba. Private school Flight, among others, trains pilots and mechanics in Sorocaba; the tax-financed Senai provides training for less specialized line workers. Other parts of the business aviation ecology are appearing, such as Marcia's Catering, which has a facility at the IconAir hangar across the runway.

Sorocaba’s active airport users association is pushing improvements that benefit all airport tenants, and the state of São Paulo, which owns the airport, has made consistent investments in recent years. A control tower has been constructed, but awaits a bid for equipment. The runway has been extended, but awaits certification by Brazilian regulator ANAC.

Other improvements are on the way,” the Embraer spokesman observed, and some things that can’t be improved need no improvement. “The weather in Sorocaba is excellent,” he explained, “and often Sorocaba is open when Congonhas is closed.” There is strong support for the airport from the city government and the community. Other pluses are Sorocaba's 24/7 operations, lack of need for slots and absence of commercial flights, which are given priority at other airports.

The next step, Embraer and WWA agreed, is internationalization of the airport, a step that requires input from four separate federal departments, the federal police, tax authorities, sanitary control and the ministry of agriculture and fisheries, all of which currently have hiring freezes. Internationalization would be especially important for MRO operations, said WWA’s You. “Many South Americans come to Sorocaba for maintenance, but some prefer to visit the U.S. The temporary importation of an aircraft for maintenance is slower than for a visit, and the aircraft has to wait at an [international] airport [while the paperwork is done]. Despite the obstacles, You expressed optimism: “Perhaps we'll have a surprise.”

Privatization Blows Hot and Cold

Airport privatization is the subject of frequent and contradictory rumors. The week before LABACE, in a joint press conference the mayor of São Paulo, the president and the minister of defense announced that a park and an aircraft museum would occupy unused land that is part of Campo de Marte, the country's busiest GA airport and home to the air force's central engine-overhaul operation. After the joint news conference, the mayor announced that the runways would be closed to fixed-wing aircraft by 2020 and hangar tenants evicted, but an air force news release the next day spoke of the park and pointedly ignored the announced closing. The following day the secretariat of civil aviation included Campo de Marte and Congonhas on a list of airports to be auctioned. Although previous mayors have announced plans to deactivate the airport, which would create a bonanza for real estate interests with land currently restricted by the approach ramp, this has never happened. The president's weak political situation, combined with the mayor's support for him and the mayor’s own presidential ambitions, render the situation unpredictable.

For privatization to be administratively possible, fees must often rise, and that can make the airport nonviable for business aviation operations and tenants. The state, having privatized a group of five airports including neighboring Jundiaí (the successful bidders, Voa SP, are at Booth 3008), has indicated it will auction other airports, which may include Sorocaba. To add further spice, the city of Sorocaba has spoken of municipalizing the airport, and in April the GWI Group, which owns WWA, made an offer to the state to manage the airport, though You declined to comment on that. “I'm just the FBO manager, and that's being handled elsewhere in the group,” he said.

With so much uncertainty about the future of airports, what's an operator to do? You said, “For long-range aircraft, there is no advantage to Congonhas. Our profile is large aircraft.” An aircraft lands every five minutes at Congonhas during the hours that it is open. Commercial flights have priority, and flights have increased there even during the recession. Will there be room for business aviation when the economy recovers?  “New large aircraft coming to Brazil are using Sorocaba instead of Congonhas,” he said. “Sorocaba already has benefits and will get better.”

The Embraer MRO operation was busy with work last week. Auxiliary workshops such as upholstery are operating, though some such as avionics are still a room with a sign on the door. At the center of the hangar, a Legacy in gleaming black showed Embraer´s synergy: the paint job was done in the company's paint booth in São José dos Campos, and the aircraft brought to Sorocaba for the interior refit, also in deeper tones.

Embraer's tool crib and parts inventory are stocked, and, the spokesman said, “Embraer has $100 million dollars in parts in Brazil, fully nationalized, with no need to wait for customs clearance.” Brazil's Embraer bizjet fleet is second only to that of the U.S., with 180 of the worldwide fleet of more than 1,100 based here. The hangar wall displays repair station certificates from the FAA and from Brazil, Argentina and Chile.