SPECIAL REPORT. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of last month's three-hour six-state video teleconference on "Survival of FBOs" was who attended and who didn't. The alphabet groups were out in force: DOT, FAA, NATA, MATA, GAMA, SAMA, AOPA, even USDA. The Governor of North Dakota was there. But of the scores of participants, only six were FBO owners or managers; the rest were politicians, bureaucrats and lobbyists who, according to our man on the scene, "spoke a lot but said almost nothing." Here's a report of what transpired.
December 14, 1997
I recently participated in a six-state satellite based interactive video conference
that addressed the concerns and the difficulties that Fixed Base Operators are currently
experiencing. The conference took place on November 12, 1997. It's subtitle was
"Survival of FBO's: can this industry succeed or is it doomed to disappear?" The
conference was attended by Directors of State Aeronautics Organizations from six different
states. It was introduced by the Governor of North Dakota. It invited discussion from
alphabet groups like AOPA, NATA, MATA, EAA, GAMA, FAA, etc.
The conference was the brainchild of the North Dakota Aeronautics Commission and the
Upper Great Plains Transportation Institute. Riaz Aziz, one of the researchers employed by
the Transportation Institute, served as the coordinator and conference facilitator.
Participants were seated in nine different interactive television studios that were
located in five different states plus the District of Columbia.
The conference lasted exactly three hours. It began at precisely 9:00 AM. The
discussion for the entire conference focused on the following five questions:
Is the forecasted decline of FBOs a cause for concern, and if so why?
Beyond 2000. What are the potential impacts to the nation's transportation system?
Why are some FBOs more successful than others?
What can communities do to support their local FBO?
Is there a role for government to help ensure the survival of FBOs?
The program packet listed thirty-three participants. Ten participants were located in
Washington, DC. Nine were in Fargo, North Dakota. The rest were in Helena, Montana;
Pierre, South Dakota; Cheyenne, Wyoming; and Denver, Colorado; The Minnesota contingent
(who travelled to North Dakota because they couldn't find a suitably-equipped studio in
St. Paul) sat in a separate studio in Fargo. I attended at the Department of
Transportation building in Bismarck.
There seemed to be a lot more attendees than the thirty-three listed in the program. We
must have had fifteen in the Bismarck studio, although our program listed only three. Most
of the other studios had more participants than listed, too. The participants were state
DOT people, state Aeronautics people, airport managers, airport design firms, economic
development people, FBO owners and managers, etc. AOPA was represented. NATA was present.
MATA (Minnesota Aviation Trades Association) was there. GAMA; SAMA (Small Aircraft
Manufacturers Association); USDA (Yes, the US Department of Agriculture); FAA. A huge
cauldron of alphabet soup and there I sat in the middle of it.
As I surveyed the participants, two things puzzled me. First, where was the press? The
conference included high-powered people from all across the northern tier of the United
States discussing some of the most important issues facing general aviation today. Ed
Schafer, the Governor of North Dakota, introduced the conference. The press had been
invited. Why didn't they come?
Second, where were the FBOs? Hundreds of FBOs were also invited, but I counted only six
people who own or manage an FBO at the conference. Just six!. Maybe the conference was so
overloaded with bureaucrats and politicians that the FBO folks concluded it would be a
waste of time. I'm not sure. All I know is that for a conference about FBOs, there sure
weren't many FBOs in attendance.
The participants wrestled with each of the questions like terriers fighting over
towels. Yet discussion of each topic seemed to wind up and segué seamlessly to the next
on the exact time schedule that was published. The input moved from site to site in a
seemingly random pattern and yet every site was given ample time to provide input. The
conference facilitator, Riaz Aziz, was simply magnificent. He handled that huge unwieldy
collection of egos and opinions with the grace and finesse of an orchestra conductor. He
led us through the maze of agendas and constraints like a superb air traffic controller
leading us through a five-state thunderstorm at night.
Question #1: "Is the forecast decline of FBOs a cause for concern, and if so
why?" The discussion flew from site to site around the nation.
Colorado: "FBO numbers have dropped in the last 10 years, but the cycle
shows an increase."
Montana: "FBO numbers have declined in small communities but grown in large
ones. Regulation has increased but FAA services have decreased. Wealthy hobbyists in FBO
business hurt operators that depend on their FBO for a living."
Wyoming: "FBO numbers have dropped but have stabilized. FBOs at smaller
airports depend on local airport activity but those airports depend on the aggressiveness
of the FBO as well. FBO's in large communities have begun to specialize but have dropped
South Dakota: "FBO numbers have stayed consistent. Sioux Falls and Deadwood
have shown growth. The age of a typical FBO owner is a concern."
Minnesota: "FBO numbers have decreased slightly. Airplane registrations have
begun to grow. Most airports will have only one FBO because of limited demand."
Virginia: FBO numbers have increased and quality of service has increased.
Competition between FBOs and with local government sponsored services have hurt. Self
service will increase at small airports and only large airports will provide full
Question #2: "What about the future? What will happen beyond the year
"High tech industries will come into small rural communities. Good airports are
crucial to these industries. Airports will not be successful without a strong FBO.
Communities that sustain good airports will be able to attract new high tech
"Declining airline service and rising airline prices in rural areas will spur the
need for ATCO (Ait Taxi/Commercial Operator, i.e. Part 135) and general aviation
transportation. Communities that discourage local aviation activity will limit the ability
of their community to attract high tech business. The FBO must support the community and
the community must support the FBO."
Question #3: Why are some FBOs more successful than others?
"Success requires management. The FBO needs to be managed properly and the airport
needs to be managed properly. The business needs to be promoted properly. A successful FBO
must take the leadership role in developing community support, attracting student pilots,
soliciting government funding for the airport and lobbying legislators. Most FBO managers
need need adult education courses in management, feasability studies, fractional use
"A modern FBO must learn that their employees are the key to their success. A
mechanic will not stay in a small community unless he is properly paid. A flight
instructor will often stay just long enough to accumulate enough flight time to hold an
ATCO certificate then he will look for a job somewhere else. The employees must be paid
and their families must like the local community or the FBO will struggle."
Question #4: What can communities do to support their local FBO?
"A healthy local economy provides support to the local FBO. Small FBOs need a niche
in order to be successful. Community support can come in the form of low interest loans,
joint FBO and community marketing efforts, etc. Communities can tie economic development
to airport development."
"Each community needs to decide what they want from their airport. Does the
community want to be linked to the world. Communities that want strong airports can track
the economic impact of their airport, show airport growth, employment growth, pursue
grants to build airport infrastructure, bring media attention to the airport, highlight
positive activities that occur at the local airport, etc. The airport is vital to the
economic health of the local community."
Question #5: Is there a role for government to help ensure the survival of FBOs?
The Washington DC site provided most of the input to this last question. I had been
taking notes furiously for two hours and twenty five minutes, but when Washington spoke my
pages were strangely blank. The Washington site was manned mostly by alphabet groups.
These groups are supposed to be focused on the needs of General Aviation. Each of them
spoke a lot but said almost nothing:
Deep thoughts. Not!
The entire video conference will be available on videotape soon for those who are
interested. But I came away with the notion that we have two clear choices. We can work
feverishly for a strong and dynamic future, and probably see fruit from our labors. Or we
can attend another conference.