Fixed Base Operators are essential to delivering amenities and services for business aviation users
by: Kathryn B. Creedy
Most travelers gird their loins in preparation for another grueling trip. Not so private aviation passengers who no longer have to undergo the forced march most airports require. Instead, they pull up to their aircraft on the ramp or to a private aviation terminal known as a fixed base operator (FBO), knowing they are literally minutes from the aircraft door or settling into pampered luxury that gives an entirely new, upscale meaning to airport lounge.
This focus on providing elite passengers with over-the-top amenities more familiar to five-star hotels is driving a building boom at FBOs around the world as the popularity of business aviation maintains its pandemic bump.
“In recent years, the FBO market has changed substantially due to mergers, acquisitions, and/or liquidations or bankruptcy,” says Kari Bigot, vice president passenger sales for the Americas at Chapman Freeborn. “Much of the construction is due new owners seeking to incorporate new locations into their brand. In other cases, some FBOs have been in operation for many years or decades and are now refreshing their facilities with new amenities to compete with other companies.”
Furthermore, Bigot explains, “Providing hangar and office facilities for tenants is another large source of revenue for FBOs. Many organizations are adding additional hangars to support more or larger aircraft both as tenants and for transient customers. While an FBO’s primary customer is the aircraft owner/operator or crew members, FBOs seek to provide a convenient, comfortable, and classy space for the passengers.”
Bigger & Better Of course, Bigot is right. FBOs are no longer the utilitarian buildings they once were. They are blossoming with everything the private aviation customer or crew could possibly need, such as conference rooms, quiet rooms and restaurants. Some facilities are large enough to accommodate the growing number of sports teams, music tours and road show presenters as well as sales and customer support personnel who see value in flying private over the punishing experience of commercial airlines and airports.
A recent Aviation International News FBO survey highlighted the top private aviation facilities and the amenities customers find there. Taking first place was Pentastar in Pontiac, MI, for instance. It includes an in-house kitchen dubbed the Fivestar Gourmet catering to flights, FBO customers and airport workers. The 5,000-square-foot terminal offers passenger lounges, multimedia-equipped conference rooms and the Fivestar Café, along with an additional 155,000-square-foot hangar to provide 24-hour maintenance for aircraft using the facility. It also has a satellite two-story facility known as the Stargate terminal for its unique-among-FBOs jet bridge for larger Airbus or Boeing aircraft.
The largest FBO at Fort Lauderdale’s Executive Airport is the 14,000-square-foot Banyan Air Service which was voted the No. 1 FBO in the US in a survey from Professional Pilot Magazine. Facilities include a business center and a duty-free shop, an 800-gallon saltwater aquarium, palm trees and separate TV lounge. In addition to FBO services, it offers aircraft maintenance, sales and acquisition, and the world’s largest pilot shop. Its Jet Runway Café is open both to locals and for catering private aviation flights. Other FBOs have on-site customs facilities, and Provo Air Center in Turks and Caicos even has a golf-cart sized, drive-through customs area.
Some FBOs have private lounges that can accommodate 12 people or more in a party while noise dampening materials and white noise speakers provide a tranquil escape as passengers await the next leg of the journey. Top facilities frequently include snooze rooms and crew accommodations offering showers, while dining rooms and refreshment bars feature local delicacies on the menu. Parking lots are covered against harsh weather while acres-wide canopies provide the same convenience for disembarking aircraft passengers. VIP handling areas include en suite bathrooms or theatre rooms. Decorations include a Concorde engine and historic motor cars while game rooms include golf simulators, foosball and pinball. FBOs also cater to the four-legged guests with treats and relief areas.
Curating the Experience “There are many questions from first time private jet travelers related to ‘security’ at the FBOs,” Air Partner senior vice president of sales Jeanne Muzio told Business Travel Executive. “FBOs do not have a formal security process similar to the commercial airlines. It is a secure facility but unlike commercial terminals, there is typically no security screening because the smaller number of people accessing the terminal enables staff to easily identify people who don’t belong. Most passengers who enter the FBO come in for a refreshments or snacks, or to use the facilities. While their bags are placed onboard the plane, they are greeted by crew and escorted to their aircraft where they receive a flight briefing and take off.”
However, FBOs catering to international passengers still have security and customs facilities to provide a more rapid and convenient experience for passengers.
“When weighing FBO options, travel managers should consider what amenities, accessibility, and convenience factors are offered,” Muzio continues. “You should expect a premium experience throughout your journey while you’re flying privately, from your arrival at the private terminal, to the inflight experience and disembarkation at your destination. The superior service and facilities of private terminals truly make the difference in your experience and set the tone for your trip.”
Despite all the new amenities, the main issue for travel managers is ensuring the passengers have what they need at any given point in the trip. For that reason, working with an advisor such as Air Partner or Chapman Freeborn will help determine what those specific needs are and how best to fulfill them.
“The primary factors when looking at or requesting a specific FBO should be safety/security, comfort/ambiance if passengers will spend any amount of time inside, amenities provided and access to the ultimate destination,” says Bigot. “They need to know the ground transportation and what type of ramp access that transportation has. They need to know whether the FBO has conference rooms or private offices, restrooms and close-in access to the final destination.
For instance, if traveling to New York City, some airports are closer to the city. Teterboro is the closest access to the city and there are multiple FBOs, so you need to know their location on the field to know the one closest to the city.” Muzio agreed, noting there are often a number of FBOs at an airport. “FBOs have state-of-the-art amenities, such as VIP lounges, conference rooms, dining, rest areas, valet services, and parking but, more importantly, FBOs provide fuel and maintenance services for aircraft.”
Bigot notes that, unlike the charter company which provides for the entire trip, an FBO is primarily responsible for services to and for the aircraft, while ensuring passengers can arrive/depart safely and wait comfortably.
“Typically, concierge-type services are available upon request and with additional costs based on staff availability.
Depending upon the number of passengers, large/professional groups such as sports teams, music tours or heads of state, an FBO may schedule additional staff, including security, if deemed necessary or to ensure a satisfactory customer experience,” Bigot explains. “Most FBO facilities are happy to assist with suggesting local restaurants and catering companies. Some coordinate the catering as well which may incur a service fee. However, requesting specific catering is most conveniently arranged through the broker/operator directly.”
Travel managers will likely work with the aircraft charter company which often has a preferred list of FBOs. “The aircraft operator and charter companies most often choose FBOs based upon an established relationship/partnership or having preferred fuel and service pricing,” Bigot says. “Having said that, however, travel managers are able and should request a specific FBO if there is a preference, advantageous location, or a requirement for meeting or office space. Travel managers should note there will often be an additional fee from the charter operator to use a specific FBO that is different than the operator’s choice. Larger aircraft may still need to fly in and out of larger airports depending on restrictions, runways, and availability for scheduling.”
Travel managers who are planning to use an FBO should make sure the facility’s ground handlers are Safety 1st certified, according to the National Air Transportation Association, an organization that represents FBOs. That means the ground crew has been trained to safely handle general and business aviation aircraft to the latest best practices, including fueling, movement, storage and customer service.
Calling the Shots In any event, travel managers retain control of the travel experience. “Using an FBO, you are controlling the process of traveling for your client,” says Muzio, noting one of the most important aspects about flying private. “A travel manager who arranges a private aircraft using an FBO has a greater degree of control for their flight plans. For example, they can arrange access to VIP lounges and seamless transfers, and can customize the experience based on their goals or passenger needs. The experience is much smoother than if flying out of a large airport, with parking lots generally nearby, valet, baggage service, and a desk concierge, comparable to a hotel. It is especially important to ensure the FBO has adequate parking and whether it can accommodate planeside arrival and departure.”
Most corporations are working on sustainability issues, with travel garnering much of the attention. This is true for flights on both commercial airlines and in private aviation. As a result, business aviation is aiming toward a carbon neutral future. One of the principal strategies is through the use of sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) which is quickly being adopted by the industry despite availability and cost issues. Charter companies can advise travel managers on ways to enhance and track their sustainability goals.
“Sustainability and corporate accountability are among the top priorities for all member segments, including FBOs and airports,” NATA managing director of industry affairs and innovation Megan Eisenstein. “The Sustainability Standard for Aviation Businesses was developed with the entire aviation business ecosystem in mind. The standard helps membership lower their carbon footprint and demonstrate their commitment to continual improvement.”
While sustainable aviation fuels are a major focus for all areas of the aviation industry, Bigot says supply availability limits the technology’s ability to make a marked contribution towards sustainability. “Still, FBOs around the world are developing and implementing other environmental practices, such as increased recycling, paperless systems, LED interior and exterior lighting, solar panels, and eliminating use of plastic products,” she says.
A key part of the private travel experience extends beyond the aircraft to arrival and departure, ground transportation and local expertise which FBO personnel have in abundance. Consequently, teaming your charter company with a preferred FBO can make or break that experience.