The Pilot's Lounge #77: FBO Professionalism; An Oxymoron?

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Who was it said you can't get good help anymore? With unemployment higher than usual, you'd think FBOs would be able to hire (and train and hold on to) professional, customer-service-oriented staff. AVweb's Rick Durden thinks any FBO that doesn't strive for professionalism will soon go out of business. Oh, wait a minute ...

The Pilot's Lounge

Old Hack, our resident curmudgeon, caught me in the Pilot's Lounge, here at the virtual airport, the other morning. He plopped down in one of the big, old, worn recliners, scowled at me and said, "Hey, I'm the one who's supposed to look pissed off at the world. If you look more angry at things in general than I do, people will wonder about you. You're supposed to be the normal one around here. Whazza matta? You invest in Enron stock?"

I looked at him and asked, "Have you tried to get service at a small FBO lately?"

Hack thought for a moment, scratched his head and replied, "Well, I sometimes buy fuel for the Super Cruiser when I take trips, and the guys here do my maintenance and I've got them so scared that they do a great job. Come to think of it, I haven't rented a plane or tried to buy something from an FBO since the time in 1962 when the Super Cruiser was down and I had to rent a Tripacer at the FBO at that little airport that used to be about 10 miles south of International. I suppose you're going to tell me that you are extremely happy with the way FBOs do business because you had such a good experience when you decided to rent something on that business trip you just took."

Even though Old Hack comes across pretty acerbic, I've known him long enough to be aware that he is one of those folks who listens very well. I told him about the trip I'd taken on the airlines and how the schedule of meetings and depositions were such that I would have a half day of free time, so I figured I'd arrange to do some flying to explore a part of the country with which I was not terribly familiar. Once I got to my destination and sat through the first few meetings, it became apparent the schedule would hold and that I would have the entire next morning to do as I pleased.

To Dream, Perchance To Fly

I called up the only FBO on the airport that was near to where I was staying and was able to get on the schedule with an instructor and an airplane for 9 the next morning. The woman I spoke with told me the name of the instructor and gave me some background information. She was very pleasant and her professionalism on the phone gave me a good feeling about a business that I'd never patronized. I told her how long I figured that I wanted to fly and asked what it would cost. She took a moment, explained that the instructor's time was charged from when he and I first sat down to when we finished the entire lesson (as a flight instructor, I heartily endorse such a policy; an instructor's time is valuable, whether on the ground or in an aircraft) and that the airplane was charged via a Hobbs meter that started running when the engine was developing oil pressure. She was then kind enough to give me an estimate of the total cost. For the sightseeing I wanted to do, she said it would run about $200. That was acceptable to me; in fact, I had budgeted $300, as I really wanted to do this flying. On top of that, the weather was forecast to be great and I'd get to fly an airplane that was new to me over an area where I'd never had a chance to fly.

At 8:45 a.m., on a lovely, late-spring day, after happily negotiating far less rush hour traffic than I anticipated, I presented myself at the reception desk of the FBO. Things went downhill at once. The gum-chewer behind the counter ignored me. He was busy on the phone discussing whether he should use the next paycheck on a new piercing or tattoo. In fact, when he saw he had a customer, he immediately turned his back on me so that I wouldn't interrupt his conversation. While I waited for mine host to make the momentous decision regarding his addition to sartorial elegance in the world, I looked around the lobby. It was about average; that is, it had furniture that was torn and dirty, there were old magazines strewn randomly, empty soda cans decorated most flat surfaces and a few were enhanced by having spilled a portion of their contents. There was a calendar advertising tools; however, the torque wrench in the photo was far smaller and greatly overshadowed by the incredibly mammalian young female who seemed overjoyed to be holding the device. Given that a certain number of the folks who rent airplanes want to take their families aloft, I couldn't help but wonder just how this room would serve to reassure nervous, nonpilot family members about the prospect of flight in a little airplane. If the management can't even keep the place clean and not post lewd photos, how can it be expected to exercise enough professional judgment to provide safe airplanes?

After the receptionist came to the conclusion that a tongue stud wasn't going to work because his dentist had already told him flatly that she wouldn't work on his teeth if he got one, and a new tattoo was decided upon, he hung up the phone, whirled around in the chair and registered massive displeasure at the fact that I had not vacated the premises. I said I was scheduled for some dual at 9 and asked whether I could get the POH for the airplane so that I might review "V" speeds and systems. He yanked the schedule over to a point in front of himself, looked at it and told me that my instructor, whom I'll call "Ajax" usually showed up about 15 minutes late and no, I couldn't look at the POH because it had to stay in the airplane and their security system was that new customers had to be with the instructor to get the keys to an airplane. I allowed as how I thought it was wise to have such a security procedure, and asked if I could look at the generic PIM there in the display case while I'm waiting.

"Nope," was the one-word answer. I could see he was getting fed up with this customer who kept asking questions and didn't just sit down and act intimidated by the wonderful world of flight. He informed me that I could buy a PIM for $30 but I couldn't just look at it to prepare for my lesson because this company wasn't a library.

Recognizing that I had exhausted the potential for lesson preparation, I found the least dirty chair and looked for something to read. The most recent magazine announced that Cessna was suspending production of piston-engined aircraft. Ah, yes, the hot news from 1986.

At 9:20 a.m., "Ajax" hadn't shown. I walked back to the reception counter and asked if he had heard from my instructor. I was told he hadn't. I asked if he would call "Ajax" to see whether he was en route. I learned that he didn't have a phone number for "Ajax's" cellular phone. After five minutes of getting increasingly irate, I convinced the receptionist to call the instructor's home number (something he did have). No answer. I asked to speak to a manager and was told none was on the premises.

At 9:30 a.m. I reflected that "Ajax" wasn't late -- he was merely absent, because he couldn't be late until he actually appeared. I told the receptionist that I was leaving, gave him my business card and asked that a manager call me.

I went on about my business and didn't hear anything from the FBO manager all that day. At about 5:00 p.m., I called and spoke with the manager. He was most polite and said he hadn't been asked to call me and hadn't heard about my instructor no-show problem. He put me on hold for a few minutes before returning and telling me that the instructor involved had a practice of not showing up unless he knew he had someone on the schedule, despite the fact he was shown on the schedule as going to be at work at a given time. No one had called the instructor after I scheduled my lesson to tell him he was actually going to have to come to work at the time advertised. I politely told the manager that his system had just cost his company $200 that day and left it at that.

All Too Common?

Hack listened to me and instead of making some caustic remark about me being too picky, nodded and said he'd talked with one of the Lounge regulars, Armand, a few days ago and heard a similar story. Armand had a business trip planned and had called up an FBO that advertised mountain flying checkouts. He was pretty enthusiastic about getting a checkout; and even when he was told that it would run about $500, he didn't even gasp -- he said he wanted to schedule the checkout. A week before his trip he called the FBO to confirm his scheduled checkout and was told that it was all set. Finally, the morning came and Armand walked into the FBO to find that he'd been erased from the schedule. Keeping his temper, he inquired as to why that had happened; was the airplane broken, the instructor sick? Not a bit of it, he was told. Someone else wanted the airplane and because Armand was from out of town, it was figured he wouldn't show anyway, and rather than attempt to call and see what could be worked out, he was simply erased. Armand raised a stink and another airplane and instructor were located, although it took over an hour.

After reciting the problems Armand had had, Old Hack looked at me and asked, "Are the little FBOs so rich they don't want the public's money? If I'd have run my business like that, I'd have been broke 10 times over." Hack had been very successful in business for many years before he had retired to devote himself to spending his life at the airport and complaining about ab-initio training, nose wheels and pilots who carried very large flight bags out to very small airplanes.

How To Run A Business

Old Hack proceeded to castigate pilots as lousy business people and then to tell me some of the things that the smaller FBOs could do to avoid hemorrhaging money, especially when things are tight.

Hack's first point was that FBO operators have to accept the fact that they must run their organizations as businesses, not hobbies, if they are going to avoid making a small fortune in aviation after starting out with a large one. They must be business people first and pilots much later.

Communicate Internally

Hack commented that one of the toughest things to do well in business is to communicate effectively within the organization. The success at that task often is the dividing line between whether a business does well or goes under. He said that FBOs must set up lines of communication so that each portion knows what is going on elsewhere. If a pilot schedules an airplane, he or she has the legitimate expectation that the airplane will be there at that time, that it will be in good mechanical condition and it will be clean. If it has to go down for maintenance or there is some problem, the renter should be called immediately and given all available options, whether it would be to take one of the other airplanes of the same model, use a different type of airplane or postpone the flight. The important thing is to get word to the renter before he or she walks into the office expecting to fly, having made plans based on being able to use the airplane. The FBO has to have a centralized communication system so that the employees know that an airplane is going to be in use and can take suitable action to make sure that the customer is happy when he or she anticipates using that airplane.

When someone schedules an airplane, Hack said that the person taking the call should take down all pertinent phone numbers for him or her so that the customer can be easily reached if any question arises about the scheduled flight.

No-Shows

Every FBO has the problem of pilots who schedule and don't show on good weather days. It's expensive. So, face the problem and set up a program as hotels handle the situation. Publish a policy that says that if a renter no-shows, without calling to cancel at least some period of time in advance (unless the weather is below some defined level of good VFR weather, say perhaps 3,000 and 5, with winds under 15 knots), then the renter will be charged for an hour of time on the airplane. When scheduling the airplane, get the renter's credit card number, just as a hotel does, so that a no-show fee can be charged if needed and tell the renter about the policy so he or she can't claim to be surprised later on.

Take a Deposit

Charge a deposit for major rentals. If someone wants a checkout or mountain flying course or a seaplane rating or a long sightseeing flight, get a deposit via credit card for about 10 or 20% of the expected bill. It reduces the likelihood of a no-show and lets the FBO know that the prospective renter is serious about the whole thing. The deposit becomes non-refundable 48 hours prior to the scheduled flight unless the weather at the time of the scheduled flight is less than good VFR.

Schedules

If an instructor is on the schedule starting at 8 in the morning, she or he should be in the office at that time or have worked out something with the person responsible for scheduling and is available to come in within 15 minutes if called. If the instructor isn't available, then take his or her name off of the schedule for the time of unavailability. The same with an airplane, if it's on the schedule, it should be available. If something happens and an instructor or airplane becomes unavailable for a period of time, immediately call the renters on the schedule and reschedule them.

Train

Send anyone in the FBO who has any sort of management responsibility, including the instructors, to school on how to be a manager. Good grief, most FBOs give more training to line personnel then they do to managers. Management is not intuitive, it must be taught, just as one has to learn to fly. The local community college has management classes in the evenings. Use them. They are astonishingly cheap. It's amazing what a person can learn in just a one-semester course in introductory management. Education always pays for itself, especially in business. One of the very nice side-effects is that the FBO can make use of what those educated employees have learned to increase the FBO's business, making more money for the FBO and allowing better pay so that the good employees stick around.

Hack reiterated that one of the nasty realities of aviation is that pilots tend to be horrible managers unless they get some good training. I'm not sure why it is, but I've seen it as well. Pilots who go into business seem to have a poor overall success rate unless they have also taken college level management classes. Pilots who have risen into management positions at small FBOs are a microcosm of the problems that the airlines have when they put their pilots into management positions without training them. Who are some of the most incompetent managers in aviation? Chief pilots. Most have flown the line, but few have any education in management and, as a result, tend to do a horrible job of it. They react rather than plan, and the line pilots despise them and the customers who must deal with them are frustrated because they are incompetent. It's the same way with FBOs; if you are going to promote anyone, not just a pilot, into a management position, it is essential to train him or her.

Clean Up the Place

Clean up the airplanes and lobby and do a little landscaping around the place, even if it's just putting in a few bushes or flowers. The person who has the money to rent an FBO's airplanes is showing up at the airport in an expensive car. It's probably clean. He or she isn't impressed by a dirty, worn out lobby or airplanes that are filthy. If an FBO wants paying customers, it has to provide a product that gives value; surly service, dirty airplanes and unreliable schedules are guaranteed to keep customers from flocking to the door.

Respond to the Customer

Greet each customer that walks in the door or taxis up in an airplane. Don't let a person walking in just wander around, looking confused, greet him or her right away and make them welcome. Retail stores learned long ago that such action drove up sales. It's the same way with airplanes taxiing up. Marshall them into a parking spot rather than let them aimlessly taxi around the ramp and then park in that one spot that is in the way of everything. Welcome them to the FBO and get a fuel order. Fuel sales are the lifeblood of most FBOs, so if greeting each airplane gets just two more sales each day, the effort will nicely enhance the bottom line. Pilots should not have to seek out someone to get fuel. If they do, some will decide to go on to the next stop before buying, making the FBO that plays hard to find the loser.

Every single employee should be told that if he or she says to a customer "that's not my job" it's a firing offense. If an FBO employee is asked for something by a customer, and that employee doesn't know how to do it or get it, the employee should personally take the customer to the person who can solve the problem and not leave the side of the customer until it is apparent that the right employee has been found. It's basic good business, but somehow it needs to trickle down to more FBOs.

The Shop

The maintenance shop needs to communicate with its customers; to tell them what work will cost before it is done so that the customer doesn't have a coronary on getting the bill (plus, it's required by law in some states). All parts pulled and replaced should be shown to the customer before being thrown away or returned for core credit. Keep the customer in the loop, especially on larger jobs. And, from a business standpoint, don't let an airplane leave the shop until the work is paid for. An FBO isn't a bank; it isn't in the business of making loans to its customers. Besides, in most states, the only leverage the FBO has for payment is to hang onto the airplane until the owner pays, once it goes out the door, the FBO may or may not be able to file a mechanic's lien for payment, or will have to sue, killing the profit on that service. A certain percentage of owners are not going to pay if the FBO lets that airplane go. Why knock that income out of the business? Do as the car repair places do, don't give the keys back until the customer pays for the work.

By the way, that airplane isn't airworthy until the mechanic fills out the logbooks. So, don't let it go until that job is done, because the FAA has a nasty habit of coming after the shop as well as the owner if the airplane is flown before the logbook entries are made.

Be Businesslike, Stay In Business

While a certain number of pilots will complain about FBO prices no matter what, all of us know that if the FBO doesn't make a profit, it doesn't stay in business and all of us get hurt by the loss of services. So, as Old Hack put it, run the place like a business, because it is a business. If it's run as a business, the FBO can remain viable and we pilots can have somewhere to go to complain about the high price of flying.

See you next month.


Want to read more from Rick Durden? Check out the rest of his columns.