Signature Flight Support Landmark San Diego International Airport
Signature Flight Support Landmark San Diego International Airport

FBOs Spread Their Wings for the On-Demand Crowd

Some seasoned charter customers prefer to drive directly up to the airplane outbound and be met by car planeside at their destination, assuming security rules allow this. Many others, though, arrive and depart via FBOs, or fixed-base operations. If you’re in this latter group, you’ll want to make sure your flights are bookended by top-notch FBOs. These airport facilities provide amenities for pilots and fuel and services for aircraft but also many amenities for business jet passengers.

The archaic moniker doesn’t begin to explain what they offer. “Fixed-base operator” is popularly dated to America’s Air Commerce Act of 1926, a time when aircraft used open fields as their ports, and transient services provided fuel and maintenance. The Act brought airports under federal regulation, and as they spread and field work dried up, many former transient operators established fixed facilities at the bases.

No contemporary charter customer averse to oil stains would want to pass through one of those early FBOs. But thanks to a wave of investment over the past decade, many such facilities are now as synonymous with luxury as private jets. The new Million Air terminal at New York’s Westchester County Airport includes a room-size golf simulator and a complimentary, barista-staffed Starbucks. At Desert Jet’s terminal in Palm Springs/Thermal, you can drive into an enclosed, air-conditioned porte cochere, where you can leave your car to be detailed while you’re away.

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Large business aviation hubs may offer several FBOs. The New York metro area’s Teterboro and Los Angeles’s Van Nuys each have half a dozen. (Signature Flight Support, the world’s largest FBO chain, operates three of the Teterboro facilities and two at Van Nuys.)

You might want to use a particular FBO for any number of reasons. If you’re an aircraft owner who employs charter for supplemental lift, you might prefer to use your management company’s FBO. Or maybe your golf game is a little rusty, so you want to depart from the Million Air facility with the golf simulator.

Charter providers will generally accommodate requests for using a particular facility, but your choice could impact the price of the flight. That’s because many operators have agreements with chains, networks, and independent FBOs that provide for discounted ground handling, fuel, and other services.

A good charter provider ensures that service levels at its selected facilities are on par with those delivered onboard. But customers who wish to choose for themselves have several ways to help them size up options.

The International Standard for Business Aircraft Handlers (IS-BAH)—developed earlier this decade by the International Business Aviation Council and the National Air Transportation Association—is a voluntary ground-handling accreditation. It requires, among other mandates, that an FBO have a Safety Management System. Any IS-BAH-certified facility is likely paying close attention to customer service, as well.

The Paragon Network comprises independent and small-chain FBOs worldwide that meet a common five-star standard for facilities and services; operating like one large FBO chain, the more than 50 locations also facilitate travel between affiliated FBOs. The more than 70 FBOs across 25 countries in the World Fuel Services–sponsored Air Elite network provide “Diamond Service” while offering the local expertise and regional flair of its audited and independently owned members, the group says. 

Additionally, BJT sister publication Aviation International News publishes an annual, in-depth survey covering some 4,500 FBOs worldwide, tabulating responses from pilots, flight attendants, dispatchers, and qualified subscribers. They rank each location on five factors—line service, passenger amenities, pilot amenities, facilities, and customer-service representatives—and these scores are combined to create an overall rating. (FBOs overwhelmingly receive similar rankings across the five categories; rarely will a location’s rating in one category greatly eclipse or fall short of its average rating, according to AIN senior editor Curt Epstein, who reports on the survey.)

As the AIN poll reveals, you don’t have to be a big chain to deliver top-notch service. Standalones including Pentastar Aviation in Michigan, Fargo Jet Center in North Dakota, and Epps Aviation in Atlanta consistently earn top recognition in the annual rankings. Meanwhile, survey results suggest that FBOs have steadily improved over the last decade. In the 2009 poll, which employed a 10-point system, only one FBO—Sugar Land Regional in Texas—broke the nine-point barrier (9.09), the equivalent of 4.55 on today’s five-point scale. That happens to be the minimum score it took to make it into the top 20 percent of FBOs in the 2019 survey.

The change reflects the consolidation and expansion of the FBO field since the mid 1980s. That change has been particularly pronounced in this decade, as FBOs have become a darling of private investment firms, and airports, seeking their own competitive advantages, have become more demanding in the services they want leaseholders to provide. Several recent purchases have been funded by private equity, helping build out the reach of Jet Linx, Modern Aviation, Ross Aviation, and others, notes Stephen Dennis, CEO of the Aviation Resource Group. With the increased demand, AIN’s Epstein says, some FBO buyers today “are paying price and earnings multiples that in many cases are more than double the valuation models that the industry has long favored.”