Signature making its presence in Europe felt

 - November 29, 2006, 11:00 AM

Signature Flight Support’s scheduled opening this month of a new FBO at Doncaster Robin Hood Airport in northern England marks the latest addition to the U.S.-based group’s fast-expanding European network. Its other 18 FBOs in Europe collectively handled some 40,000 movements last year, according to European managing director David Best, who said all bases are seeing strong growth with increased movements and good financial performance.

The vast majority of Signature’s facilities in the region handle general-aviation traffic exclusively, although several also deal with government or military aircraft. Having rebranded each facility, Signature is looking hard at further opportunities to add more facilities by acquisition or development. It has received several unsolicited approaches from established FBOs wanting to sell their businesses, Best told EBACE Convention News. The European FBO network is now almost half the size of Signature’s North American chain.

Seven of Signature’s European FBOs have been opened or acquired since the beginning of 2004. The company has built a new facility at Toulon in southern France, where it offers an alternative to the business aircraft handling operations at Nice and Marseille. It also has constructed a new hangar at its London Luton FBO.

At Paris Le Bourget Airport, Signature recently acquired Le Terminal, which is being refurbished as the main base for its tenant operators. Also at the French gateway, one of its most recent acquisitions–PrivatAir–is being rebranded as Signature Terminal 1 to serve as a core transit base. The refurbishment at Le Bourget represents a rolling program of work, the first phase of which should be finished by October, with a second facet completed next year.

European rebranding has brought common signage to all European bases with all employees wearing the same Signature uniform. Expansion of Signature’s European network promises benefits to North American business aircraft operators, giving them access to a known brand and standards with a consistency of service and “one-stop shops” across the region, said Best. He said there is now a wider appreciation of the standards to be expected here, compared with, say, 10 years ago when the FBO industry was much more disparate with no common standards.

Best “likes to hope” that Signature’s European FBOs offer consistent standards of facilities and service for customers. He acknowledged that the region does not have the uniformity of culture and business practice found in the U.S., comprising as it does several different first languages nd lifestyles. “There are subtle differences of culture, which is why we employ local managers,” he said. Nevertheless, Best believes there is strong brand familiarity throughout the European network.

Confirming its long-term commitment to supporting European business aviation, Signature has invested some $25 million in site acquisition and development in the past two years. Almost all of the FBOs are wholly owned, apart from two: it has taken a 51-percent share in the former Athens Aviation Services base in Greece, and it holds an 85-percent interest in the FBO at Shannon in western Ireland.

The Greek capital represents a slight difference from other European FBOs, since Signature is able to function only in a supervisory role. “There is no dedicated general aviation handling license available in Athens,” explained Best. “We operate in the terminal and manage handling, but we subcontract push-back services and so forth.”

Potential acquisitions, which often might be located near European holiday destinations, must offer the prospect of good long-term traffic growth, said Best. Signature is looking at both established FBO businesses as well as opportunities to set up new FBOs in the region.

Does the company expect the European FBO sector to see further rationalization and, perhaps, consequently fewer brands? “There are a lot of players and we will have to go a long way before there is only a small number. There will be some consolidation, but Signature Flight Support expects to grow,” concluded Best.