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Working For A United Front

The world is getting back to business.
Bizav flight operations year over year (June 2010 vs 2009) show activity was up by 4.9 per cent overall according to the General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA).


September 27, 2010
By Rob Seaman

Topics

The world is getting back to business.

Bizav flight operations year over year (June 2010 vs 2009) show activity was up by 4.9 per cent overall according to the General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA). Results show two consecutive quarters in which industry billings have gone up. And so it would seem travellers are once again going places and making the world their business. But just what is the state of things in the FBO and support world outside of the home market?

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The 20,000-square-foot Sugar Land FBO is styled after a Texas ranch house.


 

The country Canadians travel to the most is without question, the United States. It represents our largest trading partner and offers many of the most convenient vacation spots of choice. Looking at how U.S.-based FBOs have faired during and after the recession and how they see things going forward is an interesting comparison to the domestic story.

In terms of travel away from home, big name chains are where most find comfort and service. Some feel wandering off the trusted path is risky when travelling abroad and passenger needs are top priority. That is where companies like Signature Flight Support Corporation come in. With 102 facilities worldwide, they have a size and volume advantage. Signature has FBOs at more than 50 per cent of the top 30 U.S. large hub airports as well as 48 of the top 50 U.S. metropolitan areas. Like many FBOs, it took advantage of the recent downturn to review and revise its core business to attract and retain customers.

“Signature is a customer-centric organization and continually tries to find new ways to provide world-class service to its customers,” says marketing specialist Lisa Musante. “In January, Signature launched Signature Status, a program targeting flight departments, aircraft operators and aircraft owners and tailored to reward Signature’s most loyal customers with value-added benefits.” There are three membership tiers: silver, gold and platinum, and according to Musante, the benefits escalate as the percentage of visits to Signature facilities increases. The benefits include services such as guaranteed crew cars, preferred ramp parking, priority daytime hangarage, GPU startup discounts, complimentary Hertz #1 Gold membership and Signature QuickTurn services.

Since the program is not based on fuel volumes, the size of the aircraft and subsequent uplift of fuel will not have an impact. The program is limited to turbine-powered aircraft flying on IFR flight rules and benefits are available at all Signature-branded facilities in the U.S. Any aircraft, regardless of its country of registration is eligible to apply.

The environment is a key point in aviation today, a point of pride and even an attraction for some to “doing business.” Signature for its part has established a leading position in the innovation and integration of environmentally responsible practices in the design, construction and operations of FBO facilities. It currently operates the only two FBOs in the U.S. that have been awarded LEED certification. (LEED is an internationally recognized green building certification system developed by the U.S. Green Building Council. The council provides third party verification that a building has been designed and built to save energy, reduce CO2 emissions, use water efficiently and improve indoor air quality thereby reducing the building’s impact on the environment). In addition to buildings, the company uses environmentally responsible, alternative fuel vehicles and equipment. It and fellow BBA Aviation companies currently operate more than 40 propane-powered ground support vehicles and more than 50 electric aircraft tugs – and that number is growing.

Signature also participates in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy sponsored, Energy Star Portfolio Manager Program. Eleven locations are currently enrolled in the program: Anchorage (ANC), Centennial (APA), Dallas Love Field (DAL), Denver (DEN), White Plains (HPN), Las Vegas (LAS), Morristown (MMU), San Francisco (SFO), Orange County (SNA), Teterboro (TEB) and Van Nuys (VNY). This allows Signature to track and assess energy and water consumption, compare the results against other FBO locations in the portfolio, receive recommendations for efficiency improvements, estimate its carbon footprint, and gain Energy Star recognition.

A different model
Non-chain sites offer their own unique attractions and efforts to be greener – and most build loyalty through outstanding service. They build their businesses one client at a time, unlike chains that refer clients site to site. Non-chain sites also have significantly lower advertising and promotional budgets to work with, so to them, the big thing has to be service, memorable travel and support.

Showalter Flying Service at the Orlando Executive Airport certainly reflects this model. Being in the heart of Florida’s vacation zone certainly helps this site – especially with sun seeking Canadians in the winter months. Add to that hosting the NBAA a few times and you have what is unquestionably a popular and established FBO. Showalter has been in the business at the site since 1945 and caters to all aircraft from small tail draggers to large business jets. “No matter what the size of your plane, you are treated like you landed back home as soon as you open your door,” says Kim Showalter, president and chief operating officer. “You’ll see it’s our people and work environment that makes the difference.”

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Universal Aviation U.K. at London Stansted. Universal is unique in offering its own handling staff, facilities and equipment in London, Paris, Madrid, Milan, Rome, Athens, Dublin and Shannon.


 

In assessing business in 2010, Showalter says “things are looking up with our business seeing a five to 10 per cent increase but, we are still down 40 to 45 per cent from pre-recession. The Orlando aviation market took a double whammy from our government when they chastised business airplane use in general as well as black-listed Orlando conventions and meetings. So I would say businesses are slowly starting to become comfortable again using their business tools.”

In terms of enhancing or adding to the business during the downturn, Showalter updated its business software system to the popular Total FBO product. The upgrade was a planned investment and had to be done this year to meet the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standards. A bonus feature of the software is it communicates with its refueling trucks for instant processing and enhanced customer service. It also aimed to become efficient in other ways. “We sat down with all employees two years ago and asked them for input. Everyone was able to participate and we implemented many of those ideas to save money. For example, line technicians offered to wash their own uniforms. Customer service representatives implemented a saving from credit card user chargers by asking for credit cards with the lowest possible fees. With these and many more initiatives we were able to save over $141,000 a year. This interactive approach allowed us to keep a positive outlook.” Such practices show how smaller and closer managed FBOs offer advantages and flexibility others may not be able to harness.

Another independent FBO success story can be found in Texas. What makes this site unique is the FBO and airport are both owned and operated by the City of Sugar Land. In fact, the Sugar Land FBO has become a regular stop now for travellers to Houston. The airport is a short drive via US 59, and is convenient to the Galleria, Energy Corridor, and the Texas Medical Center.

One of the great things about independent FBOs is how some take their region to heart in the design of the facility. Sugar Land is styled after a Texas ranch house. The 20,000-square-foot facility has a collection of local featured art that is rotated on a regular basis, U.S. Customs, conference facilities, spacious passenger waiting area, expansive crew suite (with a newly added 92-inch movie screen and surround sound to view the latest releases), a private executive lounge, on-site cafe with unique food fare and catering, rental cars, and an upscale Texas gift shop.

Anne Gaines is the assistant aviation director at Sugar Land. She reports business is up 30 per cent over last year at this time. “We saw a drop in business at the beginning of the recession (down 25 per cent),” says Gaines. “At this time, we are less than 10 per cent off of pre-recession business, and on the rise.” Gaines attributes the increase to marketing efforts in promoting the location in the greater Houston area and in part because they no longer charge fees for U.S. Customs services (which has attracted more international travellers to the FBO). This illustrates an advantage independent FBOs can have over the chains.

Striving to make the operation “greener” has been another key focus at Sugar Land, says Gaines. Some initiatives include: the terminal building was constructed with features from natural lighting (windows along corridors to allow the passage of natural light to otherwise dark areas); dual switching on fluorescents in offices to reduce electrical use; high efficiency insulated exterior glass; use of computer automated HVAC systems; chilled water and other energy saving features. In addition to bricks and mortar savings, many of the FBO staff are now on alternate work schedules which saves time and fuel on commutes, as well as extending service coverage for the customer.

And then there is the T-hangar Complex – which disturbed nine acres of wetlands (the site is accessed by two taxiway bridges over ponds) when it was built. To mitigate this, Sugar Land undertook the restoration of 30 acres of wetlands in nearby Brazos Bend State Park. This project received a statewide environmental award from the Texas Department of Transportation.

The international perspective
Outside the U.S., the global aviation market is on the upswing. Travelling outside North America, many Canadian flight operators have discovered the reliability and ease of using handling firms to assist with planning and trip needs. Like the large chain FBOs, such operations afford cost savings from the volume of their business to all clients and reliability through established relationships.

Universal Weather and Aviation (UV) is one such example as they can speak to the world as its service centre. In looking at its business today vs. the recession, region-to-region reports illustrate just how things are (and are not) going in terms of a global recovery. Jonathan Howells, regional vice president, Europe, the Middle East and Africa, reports Universal’s handling business has been better than forecasted in Europe with some locations doing exceptionally well – such as Universal Aviation France at Paris Le Bourget and Universal Aviation U.K. at London Stansted.

“Business is not quite back to pre-recession levels overall, but we are pleased with our handling numbers,” he says. To attract or retain business, Howells says UV “can offer trip support solutions (flight plans/permits etc), fuel through the UVair card, and handling services through Universal Aviation as a one-stop shop bundled service. We are finding many more customers are looking to maintain quality of service, but make some savings in the current climate. They also prefer to deal with fewer handling suppliers who can help them at key multiple locations. Universal is unique in offering its own handling staff, facilities and equipment in London, Paris, Madrid, Milan, Rome, Athens, Dublin and Shannon.”

Growth propositions
Aviation experts also maintain the South American market could be leading the way for recovery in aviation. For UV in this region, it would certainly seem to support that thinking. Andre Camargo, managing director, Universal Aviation Brazil says, “Business has been great – up by 15 per cent. Due to the recession, many customers have looked for businesses in emerging countries like Brazil. Hence, there has been a steady increase, even in times of recession.” In order to support growth, Camargo says UV has invested in its workforce with customer service training, as well as GSE at its home bases and new facilities.

When heading to an evolving market such as Brazil, North American travellers tend to question security – more through lack of familiarity. Camargo is aware of this and advises security is not a big issue in Brazil in terms of threats. There is, however, a need for enhancement in procedures to provide customers with safe flights. UV customers in Brazil are always escorted by agents and luggage is scanned and attended to during the duration of time spent at aviation locations. One caution he does offer relates to customs. Although the civil aviation industry has grown in Brazil, leading to an increase in the number of flights, the government authorities have not removed (or limited) the Civil Aviation Sector and Customs working hours at most airports. This can and does cause unexpected flight delays.

While this is just a small snapshot of a few international FBOs, there are encouraging signs the market is once again trending upward. And given the ongoing commitment of individual FBOs – both domestically and abroad – to providing better services and a more environmentally friendly product, it can only mean positive things for Canadian business travellers.