““[Bill Gates] has been historically one of my best supporters…One of my favorite e-mails he ever sent me…I proposed this crazy project. And he sent back this two-line response: ‘This has got to be the craziest thing you’ve ever suggested. Please proceed.’” ”
Why FBOs matter
In the years that I've written for Business Jet Traveler, I've discussed nearly everything that affects your choices as a charter user. There's at least one factor I haven't covered, though: the FBO or fixed-base operator, through whose lobby you pass to board your charter jet.
So what exactly is the FBO's role? Does it really represent just a lobby to walk through or a place to use the "facilities" before grabbing the car?
Two years ago, my company initiated a study to try to answer these questions and found that as many as 60 percent of you care considerably about FBOs. Concerns differed regarding the departure and arrival FBOs, with the quality of the waiting area or lobby voted most important where you board the airplane, closely followed by the availability of a good cup of coffee, the parking/drop-off situation and other more minor items. At destinations, important factors included availability of conference rooms, computers, on-site rental cars and other passenger amenities.
For us, the striking commercial discovery was that those of you who expressed interest in FBOs also admitted that you "frequently to always" choose the one that you want your charter provider to use. Since aviation wisdom usually credits the pilot with this decision, we checked with the FBOs. While no one put this in the "stupid question of the week" category, I was surprised by the frequency of responses like: "Yeah, sure, we've always known that."
In fact, the FBO is often one of the first parties involved in finding a charter for the uninitiated. A frequent telephone sequence starts with a passenger calling an airport manager, who suggests an FBO (if the airport manager doesn't know a charter operator), and then the FBO does a little impromptu research and dispenses a phone number or two.
The FBO as a Destination
In some cases, the FBO actually becomes the destination. Consider a large company with multiple offices across the U.S. When the time comes for a board meeting or an M&A get-together with parties from New York and Sacramento, where's the best place to meet? If the question is "Your place or mine?" the best answer-for the sake of political neutrality or because of travel logistics-may be "neither." Maybe the ideal choice is right smack dab between the two parties, so that everybody can spend no more than a couple of jet hours getting to the meeting, do what they have to do and still get home at a reasonable hour. This is why FBOs construct lavish facilities with conference rooms, elaborate phone systems, projection screens and the other accoutrements that have become important for a business meeting.
You may not realize it, but the service you expect and usually get at today's FBOs is an extension of the handling and treatment you receive from the flight crew and charter operator, and it's usually a big improvement on a pickup or drop off at "the hangar," which is a little too Spartan for the uninitiated flyer. A good FBO can "take the baton" from the pilots in a properly coordinated charter trip and facilitate all the little items that transform a good ride into a great one: sending the rental car onto the ramp so you don't have to walk through the rain; collecting your bags and getting them into the trunk; helping your spouse with driving instructions to your hotel.
Depending on the service ethic (usually pretty strong) of the desk crew, they can save the day. Maybe your car didn't show up or went to the wrong location, and now you're late for your meeting. The FBO can arrange to drive your team to where you need to be. Or maybe your meeting ran late, and you're going to miss dinner, in which case the FBO can arrange for sandwiches or catering. I've witnessed many front desk attendants searching the aircraft tracking systems, patiently informing an anxious wife or business partner of the whereabouts of the people they're picking up.
It's impossible to list all the things that a good FBO does in the course of a day to smooth out the wrinkles for the dozens of passengers who pass through its doors. But consider this: After all the work you do to evaluate and select a charter operator, and the service and skill that they put into conducting your flight, the ground crew doesn't always get the credit it deserves. Think of the bus stops that the airline terminals have now become. And take careful mental notes during your next FBO visit. Chances are, you'll be greeted by an attentive staffer who knows exactly where your airplane and pilots are when you arrive and won't let you forget your briefcase on the coach when you get up to leave. Are she and her FBO a significant part of your charter trip? You bet.