“Let me be straight with you. What I'd rather have is an airplane. We just had a third kid. I don't like flying commercial. I like to take my family to Hawaii. When I go east, I'd like to have pilots I know. ”
Bizav Basics: How to Pick an FBO
More than 3,000 FBOs (fixed-base operations) offer general-aviation ground-support services in the U.S., and most first- and second tier-airports house more than one such facility. Some airports have as many as six FBOs, ranging from high-end, full-service operations to merely adequate ones.
So how should you go about deciding which FBOs to use? Your best bet might be to simply ask your crew, which may well have preferences based on previous visits. The crew’s task is to make your trip as smooth and enjoyable as possible, so it will quickly learn to avoid locations where there may be problems.
Here are some of the factors that prompt them to give some facilities much higher grades than others.
When AIN recently asked its readers to prioritize the factors that they look for when selecting an FBO, an overwhelming 85 percent said they considered excellent customer service most important (followed by 68 percent who listed fuel pricing). Many respondents noted that while an FBO might not have the nicest facilities at an airport, the quality of the staff continued to draw them back.
The facilities’ managers understand this. Many provide customer-service courses for their employees while others send staffers to companies such as Ritz-Carlton for training. Some FBOs have tasked their service representatives to “do whatever it takes” for the customer, whether that means having a hot cup of coffee waiting when he enters the building or locating a favorite meal from a local restaurant.
Concierge service is available at some locations. Need tickets to a hot show the night you arrive? Reservations at a popular restaurant? A tee-time at the nearby golf course? FBO concierges can get it. [Other concierge services can help, too. See Helping Hands for Travelers: A Worldwide Personal Assistant.—Ed.]
These can vary widely, even at one airport. You can find current fuel prices at websites such as airnav.com and acukwik.com, and several subscription-based software applications allow pilots and flight departments to review prices based on any discount programs they might be involved in.
Keep in mind that in many cases, you get what you pay for: higher fuel prices often subsidize additional services. Also, some FBOs offer rebates or waivers on certain fees depending on the amount of fuel purchased. In the past, service providers would lure pilots to fuel pumps by offering them bonuses such as cases of steaks with each fill-up. Nowadays, giveaways such as those have largely been supplanted by FBO chain or fuel-company loyalty programs, which allow customers to accrue points that can be redeemed for merchandise.
Some FBOs feature an arrivals/departures canopy, a large framework with a roof, adjacent to the terminal so you can deplane, sheltered from the rain or sun. Many have elegantly appointed lounges, some with panoramic windows overlooking the runways or even massive fireplaces. Complimentary high-speed Wi-Fi service is rapidly becoming standard.
If you’re on a business trip, you might consider using the FBO as a temporary office. Many locations offer conference rooms, some equipped with audio/visual systems. Business centers with computers and printers are also common.
Aircraft storage. FBOs offer aircraft parking and storage, either in a hangar or on the ramp. Some have dedicated space for transient aircraft, but if you are attending a major event in a city (such as the Super Bowl), that space may be reserved.
Refreshments are typically available, with many FBOs offering complimentary gourmet coffee bars, freshly baked cookies and other snacks. Some locations feature restaurants with table service for those who like to plane-watch while they eat. While nearly all FBOs can assist in ordering catering and provide storage and handling once it’s delivered, some—such as Pentastar at Oakland County International Airport in Pontiac, Michigan and Hangar 10 at Kansas City, Missouri’s Charles B. Wheeler Downtown Airport—provide catering from their own kitchens.
Crews typically spend more time than passengers at the facility. To address their needs, many FBOs have a flight-planning room with computers and weather-reporting services and pilot lounges where they can relax; some locations even offer “snooze rooms” for them to catch a bit of shuteye. Other amenities include theater rooms, game rooms, kitchens, exercise rooms, showers, even laundry facilities. One common and well-appreciated offering is crew cars, vehicles that are put at the crew’s disposal while the aircraft is parked at the FBO.
At some airports, cars are allowed on the ramp to whisk passengers away as soon as they exit the airplane. Some FBOs offer on-site car rentals.
FBOs can service your aircraft, emptying the lavatory, refilling water tanks and cleaning the interior in addition to filling its fuel tanks. Some FBOs also offer maintenance services—ranging from minor repairs to major airframe inspection—either through their own service departments or via a tenant operation. Most FBOs will list the training program that certified their staff, such at the National Air Transportation Association’s Safety 1st Professional Line Service Training course.
FBO in a Box
Don’t need personal service? U-Fuel, a provider of self-service fueling stations, has concocted a self-contained, unmanned “FBO-in-a-box” concept designed to lower the cost of operating at small airports. The facility consists of a weatherproof steel enclosure that contains self-service pumps for various fuels, an air-conditioned lounge with restroom, as well as a meeting room with telephone, wireless Internet and vending equipment for food, beverages and aviation items. According to the company, access to the approximately $100,000 facility would be permitted through scanned credit cards or RFID devices and a daily maintenance visit would be recommended to check the fuel system and clean, maintain and restock the structure. The prefabricated units could be solar- or wind-powered in areas that lack electricity. The manufacturer said the concept is perfect for small airports lacking basic services and for FBOs that wish to offer self-service to reduce costs associated with after-hours operation. —C.E.
Curt Epstein welcomes comments and suggestions at email@example.com.