people sitting at FBO
Fargo Jet Center in North Dakota

Five Facts About FBOs

These havens of hospitality are among the best reasons to fly privately, but sometimes they’re not easy to find. That’s on purpose.

As a BJT reader, you’re undoubtedly aware that folks who fly privately can usually use separate terminals—known as FBOs—to board and disembark from their aircraft. You also know that FBOs mean no long security lines, dehumanizing searches, or crowded gates—just quiet, comfortable waiting areas or even the ability to skip the building and drive right up to the airplane.
But there’s a lot you may not know about the businesses that operate these terminals. Let’s look at five of the questions I hear most often about FBOs from business jet travelers.

What does FBO stand for, anyway?

In the early post-World War I days, young, ex-military pilots who just couldn’t stay on the ground would fly war-surplus biplanes from town to town, either one at a time or in ­“flying circuses” of two, three, or more. Operating from the most convenient pasture close to town, they would offer rides or perform aerial shows in exchange for money, food or, ­sometimes, just enough gas to make it to the next destination. Occasionally, a barnstormer would weary of the grind and decide to settle in one of the towns, providing services such as flying businesspeople around, giving flying lessons, or performing other aviation-related activities such as crop dusting. These ad hoc businesses became known as “fixed-base operators” (FBOs), to distinguish them from their gypsy counterparts. The name stuck.

How do FBOs earn a living?

In the U.S., fuel sales are the most common profit center, but hangar rental, maintenance, aircraft sales, charter, a flying school, or some other specialty might contribute to the cash flow. Income sources depend heavily on the location, the character of traffic, and the local airport management.

Why is it so darned hard to find the FBO at many airports?

FBOs guard the privacy and security of their customers, so you won’t see neon signs with arrows pointing the way. Make sure the friend or limo driver meeting you calls ahead for detailed directions. And if the airport is a major business aviation destination, be sure to specify which FBO you’re going to. At such airports, there could be as many as half a dozen.

Who manages FBOs?

Though airport authorities operate a few FBOs, most of them can trace their origins to a private entrepreneur who started small, probably out of a love of aviation. Many remain individually owned, but in recent years, several large FBO chains have taken over some mom-and-pop operations, often with great success due to the chains’ bargaining clout and economies of scale. But experience has shown that a key ingredient to success, whether taking over an existing FBO or starting from scratch, is a local management team that understands the needs of the micro market at the airport.

Why do I feel as if I've walked into a hotel?

FBOs are in the hospitality business. At small airports, they might be on the cozy B&B level while, at larger airports, they could be redolent of five-star resorts. Regardless of size, the most successful FBOs are staffed by people who understand that customer service is second in importance only to safety. So expect amenities like prompt planeside baggage pickup; refreshments in the lounge; knowledgeable concierge service at the desk; and friendly employees whose smiles may make you smile, too.