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Searching for the stars

Professionalism, impeccable customer service and attention to detail. They’re all key elements in the successful makeup of a credible fixed-based operation (FBO), but is there something else that sets one FBO apart from its competition?

September 23, 2011  By Rob Seaman

Professionalism, impeccable customer service and attention to detail.

They’re all key elements in the successful makeup of a credible fixed-based operation (FBO), but is there something else that sets one FBO apart from its competition? Are there other qualities that push one operation over the top and keep customers coming back? Who shines brightest in the Canadian FBO space?

The desire to answer these questions and discover the crème de la crème of Canadian FBOs was the driving force behind the creation of Wings magazine’s first Canadian FBO survey. And it makes perfect sense – after all, it’s not like this information is readily at hand. For years, Canadian aviation service and support circles have lacked a unique review and customer-focused analysis of the FBO support services provided in this country. The domestic picture has by and large been an add-on to other U.S.-based surveys and has lacked the homegrown overview many feel is applicable, justified and needed.

Modelling its customer service training program after a five-star hotel has helped Montreal’s Starlink/Signature FBO deliver an impeccable level of service.


This report presents a solution – Canadian data gleaned from an online survey conducted on the Wings web- site from June 27 to July 31. The methodology was straightforward: survey participants were asked to nominate up to five FBOs of their choice and rank them on predetermined categories provided by the editors. The survey did not prompt participants as to which FBOs they could select – the decision was exclusively based on personal selection and recognition. Accordingly, all FBOs in the country, regardless of size or location, had equal opportunity for recognition.

The survey asked for a rating of the selected FBO based upon eight service and amenity criteria – examples being customer service, line service, hangarage, amenities and even GSE quality. Participants rated their chosen FBO on a scale of one through 10 on such attributes. The survey also asked, by prompted question, for a chosen or preferred fuel supplier and charge card. Finally, participants were asked to indicate how important pricing and customer service are in their choice of FBO.

Final end scores were tallied to see how the selected FBOs rated overall for their markets. A winner was selected from region to region across the country – and one overall winner was determined based on the total votes cast and related scores.

The results provide credible third-party ratings of how domestic FBOs and their related support services rank in the minds of clients. Some 40 FBOs were named and rated in the report, showing customers do remember their service experience and feel loyal enough to comment when asked. The winners in the respective categories include:

  • Best FBO in Canada: Starlink/Signature YUL
  • Best FBO in Western Canada (B.C., Alta., Y.T, N.W.T.): Million Air YVR
  • Best FBO in Central Canada (Sask., Man., Nunavut): Kelly Western Jet Centre YWG
  • Best FBO in Ontario: Skyservice YYZ
  • Best FBO in Quebec: Starlink/Signature YUL
  • Best FBO in Atlantic Canada (N.B., N.L., N.S., P.E.I): Shell Aerocentre YYT
  • Most Preferred Fuel: Esso
  • Most Preferred Fuel/Charge Card: AvCard

Some of the most revealing data relates to fuel price and customer service as components driving FBO choice. Many on the FBO side would argue these are the top two factors in determining their operation’s ultimate success or failure. And although certainly critical, survey results suggest they aren’t stand-alone factors. To wit, only 44 per cent of respondents indicated customer service is the top consideration in choosing an FBO, whereas only 24 per cent indicated price was the most important factor. The reason? In the end, it’s a combination of elements that help the best rise to the top.

Tools of the trade
Scoring with customers on multiple levels isn’t an easy proposition, but it’s precisely what a top FBO must do to keep clients coming back. An impeccable service-oriented approach is paramount, says Brenda Libby, vice-president sales and marketing with Starlink Aviation/Signature. Libby says the company’s Signature proprietary customer service training program, “Service with a Leading Edge,” was developed in collaboration with a prominent five-star hotel. It covers all aspects of delivering world-class service.

Creating a relaxing, peaceful environment for pilots and other clients helps an FBO stand out.


“This program, combined with hard work on the part of our employees and
management team, along with our desire to be the safest, most
progressive business aviation provider in the world,” is instrumental in
providing the type of environment clients have come to expect, she

Enhanced training and a commitment to top employees are the backbone of
Vancouver’s Million Air operations, says general manager Ron Forbes.
“Million Air University provides training many times throughout the year
to everyone across the network,” says Forbes. “Million Air maintains a
‘People First’ philosophy which makes providing both initial and ongoing
training to Million Air employees a top priority.” The result, Forbes
says, is a high level of commitment to safety clients have come to
expect – and they get it on every visit.

Brand consistency is equally important, Forbes adds. “In this economy,
price can be a driving factor for the customer selecting an FBO, but I
still believe service is the only way to keep that customer coming back.
We also know that when a customer visits any Million Air FBO anywhere
in the country they will get the same great experience. We all share in
this responsibility.”

In the Central Canada region, president Gordon Peters of Winnipeg-based
Kelly Western Jet Centre says it helps to have employees on board who
have been with the organization for a significant period of time.
Employee buy-in to a strong corporate culture always rubs off on the
client. “Our leadership team and a number of other employees are
long-term members of our team and they recognize and participate fully
in a strong customer service orientation,” Peters says. “We have also
become an independent fuel dealer, which allows KWJC to serve our
customers in other ways that we couldn’t as a branded dealer. Our
employees have embraced the current model and have taken ownership of
the customers they serve and bring significant value with the services.”

While top-notch customer service is a key component of the FBO
experience, many top organizations are attentive to other essentials. At
Kelly Western Jet Centre, Peters notes many customers today are looking
for a facility that is environmentally conscious. “We have made some
green improvements to our facilities including improving all of our
lighting systems and offering parking lot plug in, which saves as much
as 60 per cent on power consumption.”

At Starlink/Signature in Montreal, a recent 30,000 square foot addition
to the hangar has increased the total facility space to 88,000 square
feet, and it is now a 24/7, 365-day-a-year operation. The operations
department has also been reorganized in an effort to offer more
cohesive, seamless service to clients. Staying technologically ahead of
the curve is also critical, notes Libby. For example, the company
launched an iPhone app at last year’s National Business Aviation
Association show in Atlanta and will soon be launching the BlackBerry
and Android versions. This covers the three major platforms in an effort
to reach clients globally, allowing them to connect, access and utilize
the Signature network from anywhere.

In some ways, major world events can also help keep operations clicking on all cylinders. Such is the case at Million Air in Vancouver, where Forbes feels his team is still running off the “high” created by their participation in the Winter Olympics. “As you know, the Olympic Games took a lot of resources to create a ‘temporary’ operation capable of handling a large increase in traffic. We felt we owed it to our customers arriving at the Games to have the Olympic experience begin the minute they pulled onto our ramp. In a way, we brought Vancouver’s front door to the airport and we created an amazing environment.”

The Million Air brand in Canada is poised to expand its footprint in the West with the addition of a new Calgary location late this year. Says Forbes: “We share many customers who travel between our two cities so it was only natural for us to expand to Calgary.”

House of cards
The first Wings FBO survey also analyzed the various cards customers use to charge services and fuels of preference. FBOs today need to accept a variety of cards and charge services to remain competitive and responsive. All the various service providers have assorted programs and rates associated with each card. For this part of the report, the prominent card/charge service providers were listed and survey participants were asked to indicate which they had used – in order of preference. Top honours went to the AvCard. Other results in order of preference:
2. Multiservice
3. Colt and Visa (tie)
4. Amex
5. MasterCard and UVAir (tie)
6. Airworld
7. Air BP
8. AvFuel
9. Ascend

Brand preference was another consideration highlighted in the report. As this was a survey of national FBO interests, key multi-fuel providers were listed and participants ranked them according to preference. As noted above, Esso was the preferred fuel brand across Canada. One story angle worth watching in the coming months is the recent announcement by Exxon/Mobile – which owns a significant portion of Imperial Oil (Esso) – regarding its planned exit from general aviation fuels in the U.S. and the dissolving of its network of AVITAT-branded FBOs globally.

Ensuring all members of the staff communicate the brand message is paramount to an FBO’s ultimate success.


The first part of this announcement will have little effect on Canada; however, the dissolving of the AVITAT network likely will have a significant effect. Even the Canadian AVITAT sites apparently have no clear vision of what their future looks like. As for the rest of the Esso network in this country, although it appears it will be business as usual, there is understandably apprehension. Needless to say, there could be a new fuel leader at the top of next year’s report. Other top fuel brands in Canada:
2. Shell
3. Air BP
4. Petro T

The value proposition
To some, there’s a real question as to the value of third-party surveys, but establishing some benchmarks in the industry based on hard data is always worthwhile. Says Starlink/Signature’s Libby: “We all strive to bring added value to our clients. It’s especially gratifying for our frontline personnel, our line service technicians, customer service representatives and managers, who take enormous pride in their jobs and deliver personalized service to every client who visits our facility.”

Ron Forbes agrees, saying it’s a tool to confirm that you are achieving your corporate goals. “It’s very important to know how our customers really feel about what we are doing as an FBO and as a chain,” he says. “It’s important to have a way of gauging if all that hard work is paying off, if our message is getting through to the customer. It’s also important for our staff to get recognition especially when they work as hard as they do to give customers a little more than what they expect.”

Peters sums it all up: “It is always an advantage to let our potential customers know what our existing customers feel.”

Editor’s note: On the strength of Wings’ inaugural FBO survey, we plan to present an annual rundown of top Canadian facilities. If you have feedback on how to improve this report, please contact Thanks to everyone who participated in this year’s survey.

Cause for celebration

]Skyservice Toronto was tops in the Ontario region.


One of the top winners in this year’s FBO report is celebrating another significant milestone: Skyservice Toronto is 25 years young.

Skyservice CEO and founder Russ Payson developed his FBO concept in a school paper he penned many years ago and has translated his vision into a benchmark for the business aviation industry focused on service excellence.

“When we started Skyservice, we had a goal of bringing world-class service to the Canadian market – we saw the opportunity to make our business unique in a growing and developing industry,” he says. “Our first fixed-base operation in Montreal was the beginning of that realization, with Toronto added in 1994, and most recently Calgary. The key to Skyservice’s success is the team of top industry specialists with a passion for absolute customer service above and beyond what is expected.

From a modest beginning with 15 Montreal-based employees to more than 500 across Canada and deployed worldwide, Skyservice gets top marks in customer satisfaction surveys and operational audits. The company implemented Transport Canada-approved SMS in 2003, has been awarded the coveted Platinum rating by the Aviation Research Group/US (ARG/US), and is the first non-U.S.-based operation to successfully complete the Air Charter Safety Foundation (ACSF) audit. It will be IS-BAO certified shortly.

Skyservice’s client list for the FBOs and management companies includes many top-ranked Canadian and international companies, international airlines and royal and state visitors. Having busy FBOs and managing approximately 60 aircraft encompassing more than 20 types in the demanding roles of private, charter and air ambulance around the world, 24/7 gives them unique challenges but a passion for safety, service and efficiency.


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