FBOs are a constant topic of conversation among pilots and no less so in The Pilot's Lounge. While everyone has a horror story or two, everyone also has a tale about great, unexpected service. Ultimately, the FBO business is a service business and depends on repeat customers. Yet, some FBOs don't seem to understand this fundamental. AVweb's Rick Durden wraps up a two-part series — begun last week by Howard Fried — on FBOs: what they are, what they do and how they might think about doing it better.
February 26, 2001
|About the Author ...
Rick Durden is a
practicing aviation attorney who holds an ATP Certificate, with a type rating
in the Cessna Citation, and Commercial privileges for gliders, free balloons
and single-engine seaplanes. He is also an instrument and multi-engine flight
instructor. Rick started flying when he was fifteen and became a flight
instructor during his freshman year of college.
He did a little of everything
in aviation to help pay for college and law school including flight
instruction, aerial application, and hauling freight. In the process of trying
to fly every old and interesting airplane he could, Rick has accumulated over
5,400 hours of flying time. In his law practice, Rick regularly represents
pilots, fixed base operators, overhaulers, and manufacturers. Prior to
starting his private practice, he was an attorney for Cessna in Wichita for
He is a regular contributor to Aviation Consumer and AOPA Pilot
and teaches aerobatics in a 7KCAB Citabria in his spare time. Rick makes it
clear he is part owner of a corporation which owns a Piper Aztec because,
having flown virtually every type of piston-engine airplane Cessna
manufactured from 1933 on, as well as all the turboprops and some of the jets,
he cannot bring himself to admit to actually owning a Piper.
things here in the Pilot's Lounge at the virtual airport get a bit stirred up.
Last month I reported on a comment by one of our regulars about service at
FBOs. To say it generated expressions of opinion and reports on experiences is
akin to simply saying Mohammed Ali has a positive opinion of himself. Every
regular and visitor to the Lounge seemed to be ready to weigh in on the
subject. I did a lot of listening and took a lot of notes. While it may be
that you can lay all the lawyers in the world end to end and never reach a
conclusion, I came to two general conclusions regarding FBO service, and heard
some excellent suggestions that were made to improve the income of FBOs.
Before I pass along the conclusions, the most important overall concept
that emerged from the hubbub was that every single pilot wanted FBOs to
survive and, more than anything else, thrive. Every pilot who commented
recognized that FBOs are extremely important to general aviation. The pilots
were quick to praise good service and to suggest improvements were things were
weak. Interestingly enough, pilots were also quick to point out errors in
behavior or etiquette by pilots that hurt the well-being of FBOs. The
suggestions therefore include some for pilots.
Okay, the conclusions: The overwhelming majority of pilots reported that
when they flew into an FBO, they got service that generally ranged from good
to excellent. That's not just good news, it's outstanding. The lousy news is
in the second conclusion: Most pilots, student pilots, and pilot wanna bes
then went on to say that a frighteningly large number of smaller FBOs are
chasing away the business that walks in their front doors. The same pilots who
were lavish in their praise for fly-in service had horror stories of treatment
they received if they drove up and walked in the door. If the customer
happened to be female or a racial minority their treatment was even worse.
Word of the pilot shortage has reached the great-unwashed masses of this
country. Student starts are up. People are turning out to learn to fly in
bigger numbers than we have seen in some time. Those who are making the
decision to learn to fly know it is expensive, yet they still are making the
decision and coming to the airport. They are paying big money to learn to fly.
However, the word received here at the Lounge was that little FBOs are
behaving as if they want to discourage those who come to learn, so the
prospects either go elsewhere or they drop ten grand or so buying a boat and
are lost to aviation, sometimes forever.
Okay, now that I've got your attention, let's look at what I was told.
Little Airports The Bad...
everyone who commented regarding service they received when landing for fuel
or an overnight stay praised the FBOs, particularly smaller FBOs at little
airports. It wasn't universal, so I'll pass along a bad report from a Lounge
regular who stopped at an eastern Iowa airport last summer. He ran into a
gum-chewer behind the counter who was as unhelpful as she could be. There was
no crew car, no courtesy car, no rental cars and she couldn't be bothered to
call a taxi. She finally deigned to state that there was a fast-food place a
long walk away. The pilot left a fuel order for his Cardinal RG and walked.
Upon returning, he found that his airplane had not been fueled. Apparently,
the lineboy was feuding with the woman behind the counter. He had looked at
the fuel slip for a Cardinal RG and announced that the only airplane on the
ramp was a Cutlass RG and therefore no fuel order had been made. My friend
walked the lineboy over to his airplane and asked him to point at the wing
struts. Of course there were none. The lineboy eventually admitted the fuel
ticket was written correctly and filled up the tanks. Naturally, no one from
management could be found on the airport. The lesson? This is a service
business and everything hinges on the attitude and behavior of those employees
who deal directly with the public. This problem was management failure; the
employees had not been trained appropriately and management wasn't meeting its
...Little Airports The Good...
Much more common were comments from folks who landed at little airports and
were given one of the employee's cars to use to go get something to eat. In
other cases mechanics worked late into an evening or a weekend to get an
airplane repaired so the trip could be continued. One of the Lounge visitors,
Anne Umphrey, recently ferried her helicopter completely across the country
after an overhaul. A small helicopter does not go terribly long distances
between fuel stops, so Anne made a bunch of stops. She had particular praise
for an FBO in Midland, Texas, also at West Texas Airport (outside El Paso),
Van Horn, Texas, and Wiscasset Airport in Maine.
I heard good things about the FBOs at Ohio State University Airport in
Columbus, and Craig Air Center at CRG as well as Signature at ALB, from
Stephanie Belser who flies an old Stinson that she says gets ignored at a
number of the bigger FBOs that cater to the turbine set.
...A Mix Of Others
Dyer flies his 210 all over the country and had kudos for Ronson at Trenton,
N.J., the FBOs at Gurnesey, Wyo., Presque Isle, Caribou and Bar Harbor, Maine,
Charlottesville, Va., Glen Falls, N.Y., and Charleston, S.C. Yet, he too, had
a bad experience at an FBO on a large airport in central North Carolina when
he diverted due to sour weather. The person behind the counter gave him grief
for asking for assistance in finding a hotel room, noting that he should have
made a reservation. He explained that he had a reservation, guaranteed, for
which he would be paying. However, it was in another city. Due to his desire
to stay alive, he wasn't going there that night and wanted to have the
opportunity to pay for another a second, closer room that evening. Creatively,
he decided he'd actually like to occupy that one. Again, management had fallen
down on the job in training and supervising the employee who went face-to-face
with the customer.
Gil Buettner mentioned an experience I will vouch for: Very good service
from Signature at Detroit City Airport. While I understand it, I'm not crazy
about Signature's ramp fee policy and I have had indifferent service from
Signature at some locations if I arrive in a piston airplane rather than
turbine. Still, at Detroit City and Detroit Metro airports, I've had
consistently excellent service.
Steven Renwick made a trip across the country last summer. He stopped at 21
different FBOs and met exactly two crabby people on the ground and two grouchy
controllers; everyone else was most pleasant. He particularly liked the
treatment he received in Paducah, Ky., where the two young women at the FBO
somehow found him a hotel during the "Galactic Confab of Quilting
Empresses" when it seemed all hotels were jammed to the bedposts.
stick in my comments on the good side of FBOs. When I was 14, I joined an
Explorer Post that met at Elliott Beechcraft (now Elliott Aviation) at the Des
Moines, Iowa, Airport. The folks at Elliot let us use a meeting room and their
private pilot ground school training aids, without charge. My career took me
elsewhere after college, but I've been flying into Des Moines for over 25
years and surprise, surprise always park at Elliott. The service is
always excellent. They have gotten a mechanic for me to fix the oddball
airplane I was ferrying one weekend; linemen turned out in force to help carry
baby stuff when we flew in with our three-week-old daughter to visit her
grandparents, and they have helped get the airplane started when the
thermometer was in the minus-20-F range. I also have great affection for Gary
Jet Center at Gary, Ind. If Mayor Daley is so incredibly stupid as to close
Meigs Field, a wise alternative to the general aviation user is the Gary
Even when talking about those FBOs at major airports that cater to the
bizjet crowd I heard positive comments from pilots who showed up in
bugsmashers. As a result, I want to make this point as emphatically as I can:
Most FBOs, small ones in particular, are doing a great job of providing
service to general aviation airplanes. For that, I thank each and every FBO,
employee and manager, and particularly those linemen and women who come out in
the cold and rain and snow and put fuel in our airplanes and help us take care
of what we need. You are some of the unsung heroes and heroines of aviation.
What Can Pilots Do To Encourage Good Service?
When you make a stop, if at all possible, buy fuel. Remember that the space
on which we park our airplane has value. Somebody has to pay for it. We pilots
are notorious tightwads. (No cracks about Mooney pilots needing crowbars to
open their wallets; all of us pilots complain about prices.) It is up to us to
help make sure there is an FBO at the airport where we land by spending money
at that FBO. Okay, the gas is a quarter per gallon more expensive than at home
plate. Big deal. When you top off your Warrior, it will run an extra five
bucks. It's worth it to support the FBO that was there so we could use the
bathroom and phone.
you use a crew or courtesy car, fill it up with gas and clean out your empty
fast-food trash. Once or twice every year I stop at an FBO that no longer has
a crew car because pilots too frequently returned it out of gas and full of
garbage. I've been told the most frequent abusers of crew cars are young
charter pilots, but general aviation pilots are a very close second.
If an FBO employee gives you extra special service, tell the manager.
Publicly. (Watch the incredible service you get on your next visit.)
If you get poor service, take the manager aside and tell her or him
privately, in a professional, non-aggressive manner. A good manager wants to
know and correct problems rather than be puzzled by the lack of business.
Patronize FBOs at smaller airports. Help keep them alive, available and
viable. Besides, you can often get a faster turnaround at a smaller airport
than at a large one.
What Can FBOs Do To Make Things Better For Pilots?
FBOs, you are doing a good job serving GA pilots. Here are some examples of
things good FBOs do that can be examples for all operators.
Direct us to a parking spot when we taxi in. A wide-open ramp can be
intimidating or confusing. If there is a place where you want us to park,
have a person out there to marshal the airplane. By the same token, if you
don't tell us where to park, don't let someone (employee or otherwise)
criticize us for parking where we do. Criticism of transient pilots got to
be a national sport in the U.K. in the late '60s and early '70s. There
were articles written about how arriving pilots would be berated for
making a bad landing or parking in the wrong spot. Funny, fewer and fewer
people were willing to fly knowing they were going to be abused on
arrival. Funny also, there were fewer pilots available to stand and fight
when the draconian aviation regulations were introduced in that country.
We can't afford to chase away pilots here.
Clean your restrooms. That's pretty basic, and common courtesy.
Wash our windshield when you fuel the airplane, please. That used to be
standard, now it is rare.
Continue to help us get ground transportation. Get to know the local
taxi outfit so that you can get a fast response. I'm always amazed at
Signature at Detroit City Airport, because they can get a taxi in less
time than I can visit the restroom. I figure they keep taxis in the
hangar. If you are in a smaller community without taxis or rental cars,
cut a deal with the local car dealer for rental cars. Sure, there isn't
going to be a lot of business, but, there will be enough and you'll both
make some money.
Walk-in Traffic At FBOs
This is the killer subject. I don't know how many ugly stories I have
heard, and, as an occasional renter, I've had my own bad experiences. Let's
get to some examples.
regular Armand Vilches called a larger FBO in southeastern California a month
before he was to be in the area on business. He inquired about an advertised
mountain flying checkout and said he wanted to stay a few days to get an
involved checkout and then do some flying on his own. He discussed his plans
with the person on the phone. Armand had saved up a fair amount of money for
this adventure, as he was excited about flying in the area. Two weeks before
the assigned date he called and confirmed his series of lessons. When he
arrived, he was treated as if no one had ever heard of him. He asked to see
the scheduling book and found that his name had been erased. He was told that
no one really believed he was coming. (Then why in the world didn't the FBO
take a deposit via credit card when he made the appointments? Good businesses
do it all the time.) It happened that airplanes were available and instructors
were sitting around talking. (With such business practices, it's no wonder
they weren't busy.) He asked to go forward with the program. Initially, none
of the instructors was interested, and then two decided to argue as each
decided he would fly with Armand. It did get sorted out, but because of the
treatment he spent far less money at that FBO than he had planned.
Another occasional visitor to the Lounge, Thomas Borchet, of Germany, comes
to the U.S. from time to time and rents airplanes. In the Bay Area of
California he walked into a flying club where he was made to feel unwelcome.
He decided to go elsewhere, happened onto the Palo Alto Flying Club and was
treated well. He spent a fair amount of money as a result.
A reader described what he went through on moving to Connecticut. He went
to the four airports within an hour's drive of his new home. When he walked
into the office of the first FBO there were a number of men there, listening
to one of the young flight instructors giving a detailed discussion of the
anatomy of a woman employee who was not present. The prospective customer was
ignored. While he waited a woman pulled up in a late-model German luxury car
and entered. She was also ignored by the group discussing anatomy. She asked
the prospective customer about flying lessons for her husband. He said he'd
try to find out. He interrupted the informal medical school to ask about
rentals for himself and said that the lady wanted to arrange flight training
for her husband. He and she were given rental rate cards and again ignored as
the group went back to their puffing and panting. The prospective renter and
the lady left. He has no idea if she returned. He didn't. He recounted that
his treatment at the three other FBOs he has visited thus far was less than
professional, and he was unwilling to become a customer of any of them. Why in
the world didn't someone speak to the potential customer and schedule the
lady's husband for an initial flight lesson? What happened to management at
pilot who contacted me said she had been out of aviation for some years while
raising her kids. She decided to start flying again a few months ago. She took
her son with her to visit the FBOs near her home in New England. At FBO number
one she felt as if she walked into the set of "Deliverance." All
male, all dirty and no sign of a welcome. She didn't even try to walk to the
desk, the looks she got were indication enough that she needn't stay. At FBO
number two it was again all male, but clean; however, no one spoke to her. No
one. Questions regarding recurrent training and rentals were answered with
noncommittal grunts and shrugs. She left.
At FBO number three the owner greeted her, chatted with her and then had
one of the instructors take her son out and show him one of the airplanes
while she and the owner worked on a program to get her back into flying. She
had a very nice experience and her son was all excited by what he'd seen. By
the way, she put down $500 for block time before she left.
At an airport in the Chicagoland area, reader Cole Loftus was renting
aircraft. The FBO required that the airplane be refueled after each flight. It
was not appropriate, however, to call the fuel truck and have it come across
the airport to fuel the airplane. That would cost the FBO an extra seven cents
per gallon. The FBO insisted that the renter taxi to the far side of the
airport to have the airplane fueled and then return it to the ramp. It added
two-tenths to the Hobbs time, at the renter's expense. Such a practice is
got worse: More than once when Cole showed up for a scheduled flight the
airplane was gone (once the office was even locked up during business hours).
Calling a pilot to advise him that his aircraft isn't going to be available
and to offer him an alternative is such a basic business practice and simple
courtesy that it's almost inconceivable that an FBO wouldn't do it. Cole
finally complained about the poor service and getting ripped off for
two-tenths of an hour for the airplane and instructor taxiing around the
airport when he'd willingly pay the extra 70 cents for having the fuel truck
drive across the field to put 10 gallons in the airplane. The reaction of the
FBO was to tell him he couldn't rent there any more because he didn't follow
Frankly, with the cost of rentals, I'm surprised any pilot renting at that
FBO would put up with having to taxi across the field to get gas and repeated
times when the airplane was not available and the FBO didn't bother to call.
The only way we as renters can get good service is to insist on it, and if it
is not provided, vote with our feet and go elsewhere. Fortunately, around
Chicago there are a lot of good FBOs, so that a sour one will catch on or go
...And General Aviation's Dirty Little Secret
The feedback I received from Lounge visitors who were racial minorities or
women was enough to take me from merely disappointed with poor business
practices and failure to educate employees to outright anger at the bigotry
that is the dirty little secret of general aviation. Women were ignored
routinely. If a woman walked in with a man, all comments were addressed to the
man, even after it was made clear that she was the pilot, he wasn't and she
wanted to rent an airplane, not him. He would still be handed the rental
information, not her. What was striking was that this was done at FBOs run by
women as well as men. I received reports of Hispanic and black customers, and,
to a lesser extent, Asian customers being treated in a cursory fashion, not
having questions answered, and, on occasion, being told that no instructors or
airplanes were available to be scheduled for several weeks, even when the
schedule book was obviously open. What company in its right mind would pass up
The bad drive-in stories were almost as common as the stories of good
service for fly-in customers. I guess if you are a member of the fraternity
and fly in, you get treated well. If you arrive in a car, you are less likely
to deserve attention. Frankly, there's no excuse for that kind of business
practice. The fly-in is going to buy a little gas and maybe get some work done
on the airplane if the FBO is lucky. The walk-in is a potential long-term
customer for a rating, rental and possibly even an airplane purchase; thus, he
or she should be treated royally. Right now every college that has an aviation
department is doing the best it can to expand to handle the number of people
who want to learn to fly. Those schools are charging a ton of money and the
students are forking it over in bales, happily. Take a look; those schools are
swamped with students. Yet, the small flight schools are missing the bonanza.
It's raining soup and a lot of little FBOs are running around with teaspoons
when the colleges are using buckets.
What Can FBOs Do To Get And Keep Drive-Up Business?
up your business to respond to anyone who walks in the front door or calls
with a question about rentals or learning to fly. Make sure there is a person
who is presentable, not greasy and dirty, near the front door to immediately
greet potential customers (as well as established customers). Then take the
next step and schedule a flight for that potential customer as soon as
possible. Whether the visitor is a customer who has been around for years or
is a first-timer, the person must be made welcome and her or his questions
answered. The greeter has to be trained to handle inquires about learning to
fly and sell the program. Deal with the potential customer in a fair, open and
honest manner and encourage him or her to sign up for an introductory lesson.
Due to moronic regulations, interpreted and enforced by idiots, many
airports are fenced so as to keep potential customers out of the FBOs. After a
prospect has had the courage to run the "security" gauntlet, make
sure that your operation is a welcome haven, a warm reward for the effort made
to get to it. If a person is not a pilot, initiated into the brotherhood of
aviation, airports can be scary and intimidating places, so make sure your FBO
exudes a welcome to the prospective pilot. Always keep foremost in your mind
that they are the source of your income; welcome them and make them
comfortable the moment they come in the door. Make their arrival at your
operation an event to be anticipated eagerly.
a delicate note, the folks who hang out at your FBO are your customers. They
are generally valuable as sources of your income if nothing else but, let's
face it; they are not what you want a brand-new prospect to see when he or she
walks in the front door. I know. I'm one of those in the grubby jeans, worn
sneakers and ratty jacket, sitting in one of your chairs and talking flying
with my friends. We are not poster boys for learning to fly. A lot of us don't
even know enough common courtesy or proper behavior to take off our baseball
caps when indoors. Yes, we love to fly, and yes, after a lesson or two, a
student pilot is going to find that he or she is going to be hanging out with
us, but, in any situation, a group of unkempt men who tend to stare at
newcomers are not what you want in plain sight when you are trying to attract
a customer who is a little uncertain about this flying stuff in the first
place. After all, that potential customer has spent a lifetime listening to
the media say how dangerous aviation is, and as he or she walks in the door
the questions and misgivings are running rampant in that person's head. You
want the prospect to walk into a place that feels good. So, arrange your
operation in a way such that the prospect is greeted at the front door and the
rest of us hangar flyers are in another room. We won't mind, we want you to
succeed. If nothing else, we don't want to sit in an unheated hangar to do our
talking, so it is to our benefit that you successfully attract lots of
...Recognize And Meet Expectations...
The people who are going to come out to learn to fly know it is not cheap.
In addition to being told by the media aviation is dangerous, they are also
told it is for rich folks. As a result, and to your benefit, a prospective
customer is most likely going to be able to afford to learn to fly. That means
he or she is going to be driving an expensive car and will be willing to spend
the money to fly a good-looking, clean airplane. That person is not going to
be terribly enamored of the idea of a crummy-looking FBO with ragged, dirty
airplanes. Clean up the place, get rid of the junk, plant flowers, paint the
airplanes and redo the interiors every three years or so if you aren't going
to buy new aircraft.
enough to cover the cost of running a good flight school, attracting good,
experienced instructors and making a profit. There is an instructor shortage.
That is a fact of current-day aviation. Students want instructors who are
going to stick around. The most frequent complaint from student pilots, by
far, is that they are unable to have one instructor for any length of time
because the instructors move on to better-paying jobs. Remember your basic
economics; when there is a shortage, the price goes up. You have to be willing
to pay instructors to keep them. Take a look at the Consumer Price Index from
the mid-1970s; you'll find that if flight instructors were paid as much now as
they were then, flight and ground instruction would run about $50 to $55 per
hour (that's what the instructor would make). That is what it is going to take
to get and keep good flight instructors. Yes, the prospective students will
pay it. Yes, they will pay for the cost of a well-maintained, attractive
trainer. They are currently doing so at colleges, and there are waiting lists
at some of those schools. The ab-initio programs churn out a lot of mechanical
pilots that have never landed on grass or in a decent crosswind. Those
graduates have paid a lot for some very basic, often uninspired, training. In
my opinion, a decent FBO at a smaller airport can turn out superior pilots by
providing more varied experiences and seasoning. If there is a college in your
community, take advantage of it. The administration may be paranoid about a
perception of liability exposure if they get involved with a flight school. So
what? You don't have to set up any sort of cooperative endeavor or agreement,
simply buy advertising in the school newspaper, put up flyers all over campus
and support or start a flying club with slightly-reduced rates for students,
faculty and staff at the university. You might just be amazed.
...Respect Your Customers...
Don't try to pry every single tenth of an hour on the Hobbs meter from your
renters. They aren't stupid, they know what you are doing and are going to
resent it and go elsewhere as soon as they can. The renter who feels he is
getting a good deal is more likely to spend more money with you than the
renter who feels he's getting taken for every cent you can bleed from him.
For crying out loud, if a renter has an airplane scheduled at a given time
and it is down for maintenance or not back from a trip or the instructor got
sick, call your customer and tell her. Don't make her drive all the way to the
airport only to find out that she isn't flying and you don't seem to give a
damn. It's hard enough to get customers; don't chase them off with stupid,
...And Address That Dirty Little Secret
and among the most important steps you can take, don't support, enable or
tolerate the bigots at your airport. We chase off a hell of a lot of good
potential pilots, friends and aviation supporters because of blind bigotry.
Every airport has some of the
"white-males-are-the-only-people-capable-of-flying" set. (I 've
always wondered how the airplane knows.) Those individuals create an
atmosphere that is very noticeable to anyone who is not in the favored racial
or sexual group. It's insidious; your business is slow, but no one knows why.
If the only folks you see around your pilot's lounge are white males,
something's wrong at your FBO. The desire to fly does not discriminate by race
or sex. If your FBO doesn't have customers from all of the demographics of
your community, you are losing money and some self-examination is in order.
Remember, the new student pilot who is insulted after a lesson one day because
she is of the wrong race may very well become the leader of the civic group
that successfully shuts down your airport. This isn't political correctness,
it's the basic golden rule most all of us learned as children: Treat others as
you would care to be treated.
Just imagine that you wanted to fly more than anything in the world, yet,
when you got to the airport, people who were somehow different from you in
appearance or mannerisms or cultural background were there. Imagine how it
would feel if all conversation stopped as you walked in the door and everyone
stared at you. That no one, absolutely no one, made any move to even say hello
to you. Would you stay? If you were determined you would. How about if
conversations were started and voices were pitched so that you could be sure
and hear comments disparaging people who looked like you and with comments
that they never could become pilots. Yes, it exists. I've heard it more than
once in the last year. One loud mouth explained to a group that blacks
couldn't fly airplanes; they just weren't intellectually capable of it. Thank
goodness another person there took on the speaker. He said that for men who
supposedly couldn't fly airplanes, the Tuskegee Airmen of World War II didn't
lose a single bomber they escorted in combat against the Germans. He looked at
the speaker and asked him how many white men were members of fighter groups
that could make the same claim. There are none.
A Little Bit More
FBOs, the walk-in business is out there. I am fully aware that not a single
operator on any airport in this country has an easy life in aviation; however,
a little more effort to make the prospective pilot or renter welcome might
make your businesses a little bit more successful.
See you next month.