FBO Profile: Fort Wayne Aero Center

 - October 13, 2020, 3:17 PM
Fort Wayne Aero Center is one of a new breed of airport-built and operated FBOs that can rival many an established service provider location, in terms of style and customer comfort. (Photo: Fort Wayne-Allen County Airport Authority)

Airports usually get into the FBO operating business through one of two ways. The first is when the existing service provider either doesn’t want to or can no longer continue to, operate their facility and the airport is forced to step in to continue fueling operations until a longer-term solution can be found. In the second scenario, the lease for an existing provider has come to an end, and the airport board, wishing to increase its revenues and eliminate the middle man, decides to bring the FBO services in-house.

For Fort Wayne International Airport (FWA), it was the latter. Long before the incumbent service provider’s lease drew to a close in 2015, FWA’s management decided to enter the FBO business, rather than issue an extension or put the existing facility through the request for proposals (RFP) process.

With a master plan seeking to consolidate general aviation operations on the west side of the field and commercial activities to the north side, that meant the old FBO on the north side would have to go, so the airport built a new 15,000-sq-ft, $5 million terminal on the west side, which debuted on Jan. 1, 2016, the day after the previous FBO’s lease ended.

The two-story, LEED-certified building, which is staffed 24/7, includes a passenger lobby with fireplace, refreshment area, two conference rooms (the smaller one downstairs can seat eight while the larger features a configurable table and can comfortably accommodate 25 people); flight planning area; pilot lounge; snooze room; fitness center; showers; on-site laundry and dishwashing; on-site car rental; and crew cars. One exceptionally popular treat is the individually-wrapped FBO-branded Swedish Fish, which are scooped up by the handful according to Joseph Behling, director of fixed base operations for the Fort Wayne-Allen County Airport Authority.

“When business flyers or owners fly into Fort Wayne and their first impression is Fort Wayne Aero Center, that’s a great thing," said Behling. “It really represents the city and the area very appropriately, and we really wanted to have a modern, much better looking, better equipped FBO.”

Soon after the FBOs opening, the airport also unveiled a new U.S. Customs clearance facility next door. The complex, which occupies approximately 10 acres on the field, also includes 100,000 sq ft of community hangars that can accommodate the latest flagship business jets. It is currently home to 25 turbine-powered aircraft ranging from a Dassault Falcon 900EX to a Daher TBM 850. Behling noted hangar occupancy is currently at about 88 percent.

“I’m always one big airplane away from suddenly not having room,” he told AIN. “That’s the good thing and the bad thing about big airplanes.” As such, the airport’s master plan includes the addition of up to three more large community hangars as demand dictates, as well as possibly attracting private flight department hangar development.

The FBO handles all fueling on the airport, which, in a normal non-Covid year equates to around six million gallons of jet-A and one million gallons of avgas pumped from the airport’s fuel farm, which has a capacity of 150,000 gallons of jet-A and 20,000 gallons of avgas. The tank farm is tended by a trio of 5,000-gallon jet fuel tankers and a 1,200-gallon 100LL refueler, operated by the facility’s NATA Safety 1st-trained line staff.

The airport known as Baer Field began life as a WWII-era Army Air Corps base, and after the war it and its nearly 12,000-foot main runway were given to the city. Its name was finally changed in 1991. The Fort Wayne-Allen County Airport Authority also manages the Smith Field Aero Center FBO at nearby dedicated general aviation airport Smith Field.

Fort Wayne is known more as a business destination than for any tourism connections, with the FBO’s peak coming in September and October rather than the summer or around the end-of-year holidays. However, Behling noted a slight uptick in leisure flights to the region over the past few years.

When it comes to customer service philosophy, he keeps it simple, advising his staff at both airports to “do the right thing. It will gratify some people and astonish the rest.”

As an example, he cited a situation when the FBO helped fulfill the wish of a local disabled man who had never been in an airplane. The staff contacted a local flying club that agreed to take him as a passenger. One day last December, all six on duty line staff met the man in the terminal, wheeled him out to the ramp, and got him safely seated in the passenger seat of a Cessna 172, after which he enjoyed a night flight over the city. He was so delighted that he sent cards and letters to the FBO staff, which are hung in the line office.

“It was just one of those great things where it kind of helps you remember why we kind of got into the business in the first place,” said Behling. “We get so preoccupied with the business travelers and the business jets and the idea of the quick turn…this was such a different circumstance and it really resonated with us. You never know whose lives you can touch.”