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Airlines are the most popular among the many organizations conducting business in the aviation industry. However, private aviation and business aviation services take a significant share of the whole aviation market. And FBOs are very important for them.
We can guarantee that if you are a pilot flying a private jet, or a passenger traveling on a private charter flight, you will definitely have contact with an FBO.
But what does FBO mean? And what are FBO services? If you want to find out, keep reading as we explain FBO to you in detail.
FBO stands for the fixed-base operator. This is a company that operates in a specific location like an airport that has issued permission to do so, or close to one, hence the name.
While FBOs can be found at public airports, the truth is that they are usually private organizations. Yet, some local governments run their own FBOs at smaller airports.
The main fixed-based operations provide aeronautical services for general aviation, or for private aviation and recreational flying.
Also, one could say that FBO refers to private jet terminals. This is because the building from which the FBO operates, usually in smaller airports, offers a comfortable space and concierge services for private jet owners, private jet charter passengers, and general private jet customers.
Of course, there are many other things a fixed-base operator does. But before we get into the details, let’s remember how it all started.
Some records suggest that the term fixed-base operator was first used in the United States during the days of unregulated civil aviation back in the 1920s.
In the years after World War I, transient pilots used former military aircraft that were available to offer passenger flights, aerobatic displays, or airshows for the locals. The so-called “barnstormers” used to travel all over the country, using the land of the farmers as airfields.
The main drawback these pilots experienced was having to move around with the aircraft and not having a fixed business location.
But the US Air Commerce Act changed everything in 1926. Pilots had to comply with the regulation of aircraft maintenance and training standards, thus having to get specific licenses.
As a result, both pilots and mechanics decided to establish registered businesses with a specific fixed address, and the term fixed-base operators were born.
These were private companies that owned and operated aircraft based at the local airport, so very little has changed. Back in the day, when a private flight wanted to land at an airfield and use airport terminals that were not their home base, the fixed-base operator would work as a facilitator to manage the necessary arrangements with the airport authority.
With the advent of private jets, fixed-based operators had to evolve to manage facilities for private jet customers and crew since airports became busier.
So far, it seems that the main focus of FBOs is on private jet customers, but nothing is farther from the truth.
A private flight like a private jet charter requires a flight crew, so a part of the fixed-base operations includes services for the pilots and all the members of the crew.
Also, any private jet will eventually need maintenance and other services like fueling. In short, the most common services offered by FBOs are:
Of course, FBOs provide services beyond bathroom facilities and basic amenities. Here are the most popular services for aircraft like private jets:
Of course, large busy airports that house major commercial airlines can offer FBO customers a wider variety of amenities such as restaurants and food vending, accommodations, shops selling aviation supplies, lounges, and showers.
Also, the biggest and most specialized FBOs can be present in many locations and offer even more specific services. For example, Signature Flight Support, considered the biggest organization in the industry, has a presence in over 200 locations around the world.
Special services a fixed-based aircraft operator could offer include but are not limited to:
There may be other services termed fixed-base operations, but we just wanted to shed some light by mentioning the most popular ones.
To do so, these organizations divide their services into two categories: above the wing and below the wing services. Let’s see what they are.
Often called “Above wing”, these are aviation services related to arrangements for the flight crew and passengers to go through customs and immigration process without any trouble, as well as arranging for flights, hotels, transportation, and catering directly from the aircraft operator.
Above wing services also include concierge service for crew and passengers, which usually means providing VIP amenities and services.
On the other hand, below the wing services include things related to aircraft handling and performance like special aircraft push-back and towing, baggage handling, air taxi, hangar space, aircraft parts, fueling coordination, as well as provisioning of GSE equipment, including tow bars, stairs, and ground power units. However, it may sometimes include flight crew training standards, bathroom facilities, and water services.
Now, it is time we speak about what flying with an FBO looks like.
Whenever you fly, everything starts with some kind of planning. Both local government and private FBOs provide planning services, which is a very important aspect of their business operations.
Planning a flight requires a lot of coordination of aeronautical activities to guarantee both safety and efficiency. It is more than just adding a flight number to a timetable.
While most FBOs, have their own passenger terminals, they frequently use the same runways commercial airlines use, so coordination with airport operators and air traffic control is critical.
Moreover, they need to comply with the international standard for security. Therefore, full-service FBOs usually have pre-clearance to accelerate the process.
They also conduct crew briefings where they provide relevant information usually including the flight logs, fuel burn reports, winds aloft reports, icing reports, METAR/TAF reports, NOTAMs/Snowtams report, flight plan forms, GAR/Customs forms, load sheets, among others.
Obviously, they need to also coordinate parallel services for the passengers like getting light refreshments from catering suppliers, confirming hotel rooms are booked, among other things.
Yes, it is a lot of work, but one that can pay well enough.
Given the many different services one FBO can provide, there are many ways for the organization to generate income.
In America, gas sales are typically the biggest profit center, but rental of hangars, aircraft sales, charter flights, and other specialties may help the cash flow.
According to a review of the global FBO market, FBOs are divided into three tiers according to their total revenue.
The three tiers of FBOs are:
The review also indicates that under 2% of the total number of worldwide FBOs are classified as Tier 1, 13% are classified as Tier 2, and most of them, exactly 85%, are classified as Tier 3.
Moreover, the market is expected to have significant growth in the upcoming years.
It is important to highlight that some airports may have one FBO only, there could be an airport with multiple ones. This will depend on the size and traffic of the airport.
For example, Teterboro Airport serving New York City has six fixed-base operators, and Paris Le Bourget, Europe’s busiest private jet airport, has eight. A smaller example could be London Luton Airport offering only two.
Also, remember that FBOs can be independent, locally owned and operated businesses, franchises, and chains. Apart from Signature Flight Support, other examples of big chains are Atlantic Aviation with over 50 locations in the U.S., and Million Air with about 25 private terminals.
On the other hand, examples of FBOs located in busy airports include NetJets and Flexjet with a presence in Westchester Country, Teterboro, and Palm Beach airports.
Finally, a good example of an independent organization is Jet Linx which operates its own terminals exclusively for its aircraft owners and jet card customers in 19 markets.