The Pilot's Lounge #32:
What Pilots Think of FBOs (We Really Like You) and Some Modest Suggestions
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.
This is the second of two articles by AVweb columnists on FBOs. If you haven't already, be sure to read Howard Fried's companion column "Eye of Experience # 37: The Place of the FBO in the Scheme of Things."
Sometimes 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...
Almost 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 supervisory responsibilities.
...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
Scott 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.
I'll 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 Airport.
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.
If 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.
Lounge 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 that FBO?
One 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 unconscionable.
It 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 their "procedures."
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 under.
...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 income?
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?
Set 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.
On 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 customers.
...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.
Charge 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, inconsiderate practices.
...And Address That Dirty Little Secret
Lastly, 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.