Raising the Safety Bar
By Thomas P. Slavin, Million Air-Cleveland
January/ February 2001
Fixed base operators face a reality of changing service standards
This article deals with the kinds of changes that have taken place in some of the larger FBOs during these past few years. Many more changes - call them FBO improvements - will be needed in the future.
larger cities and at busier airports general aviation
FBOs are becoming complicated businesses. Owners oftentimes
are not operators; ownership chains are developing.
Service standards have changed and remain in a state
of flux. Pricing is becoming segmentized and far more
Changes will be needed because issues like recruitment, retention and training of line service staffers; responsibility for maintaining sensitivity to the environment; understanding the nature and quality of service required by GA aircraft that are far larger than those that were historically found on our ramps; the internationalization of our customer base; the complexity of insurance-related issues; the growth of service provider audits Éthese, and many more issues, simply need to be addressed.
Here are three examples of how Million Air Cleveland is addressing these issues.
Today's customers, flying very expensive high performance aircraft, have every right to demand that the individuals that marshal, fuel, deice, and assume responsibility for their aircraft should be well trained.
The National Air Transportation Association's Safety 1st program, with written and manual testing components, has established the "bar" for the industry. It's up to FBO owners and operators, our customers, and our insurance carriers to mandate further line service skills enhancement.
It seems reasonable to focus on the fact that line service safety training and regulation makes more sense if effected "within" - in our case, by our industry trade group, NATA.
Why? Consider for a minute a major incident precipitated by poorly or non-trained line service staff. There would of course be adverse publicity and an investigation would reveal any training deficiencies by the responsible FBO. The rightful public outcry would be deafening.
The pundits would argue that if industry doesn't train and monitor line service competency, than the government must step into the role. Assuming a compelling argument, who would be a more likely regulator than the FAA? This is an option few FBO operators would embrace.
Certainly, our insurance carriers - outspoken proponents of Safety 1st - will pressure FBOs that have safety problems by either raising premiums or denying coverage. And, by both demanding and recognizing improved skill levels of our employees, we FBO operators will in all likelihood have to address demands for improvements in wage and benefits.
As a consequence of the above, FBOs are going to move in the direction of making line service a "career" for folks that love working with aircraft. With better trained line service technicians who are earning more, our pilot customers are simply going to have to pay for what they say they want most: a higher skill level among FBO line service staffers.
In the book Quality is Free, author Philip Crosby states that quality is conformance to requirements. These requirements either come from the customer or they come from some imposition on the FBO operator. The imposition might require that a FBO operator conform to governmental (Military, DOD) or customer quality conformance audits simply to retain the customer. Crosby also says that quality has to do with measurable characteristics. If something cannot be measured it cannot possess quality.
How does this relate to FBOs? Further, why would an FBO want to become ISO certified?
First, in the perception of many, ISO designations in some way measure quality, and FBOs want to assert themselves and their services as being effected with quality. In pilot questionnaires, pilots state that they both know and can very clearly express what they perceive quality to be. They say, "Don't provide it, and you'll see us on your competitor's ramp."
Yet FBO operators don't really know if the attainment of an ISO certification will mean anything. Many of us in aviation have heard of limited ISO applications within the context of aircraft repair stations, and that certainly makes sense. And, we know that an ISO certification is not a common standard for FBOs that simply fuel, hangar, and provide ground support to aircraft. Finally, most of us, when thinking about the ISO certification process, think of it as prevalent in the manufacturing segment.
The difference is that the noted standard, Q9001: 2000 certification, focuses on the service sector of the economy. It's a new program introduced in the fourth quarter of 2000.
Who recognizes the standard? Our international aviation customers already recognize the implicit value of an ISO designation because the standard is better recognized and more widely accepted abroad, particularly in Europe. I suggest that the next aviation market sector that's going to recognize ISO certification is the fractional ownership component.
The cost expenditures for FBO due diligence expended by fractionals are already significant. Wouldn't it be far less expensive for the fractionals to outsource objective due diligence to ISO auditors, eliminating the in-house costs and simply stating, "We're going to require that our FBO service providers fly the ISO flag." What are we going to do in anticipation of these kinds of expectations?
Million Air Cleveland has registered for ISO certification. Currently, we're in the process of going through the assessment process. It is our company's intent to identify the processes that constitute the components of how we conduct our business. By adopting ISO standards, we agree to plan for continual improvement, yet prepare (procedurally) for both preventative and corrective actions in the event of problems.
The ISO process is well-suited to our industry, where there's zero tolerance for error. I've advanced the concept of NATA again taking the lead by helping to develop industry-specific standards in conjunction with our country's ISO representative, The American National Standards Institute (ANSI). FBO compliance with ISO standards isn't with us yet; however, within five years, I predict that many larger FBOs will of necessity embrace the system. Again, our best customers will demand it.
Expectations of Fractionals; the BBJ
Over the past year or so, fractional operators have "raised the bar" by conducting on-site audits of FBOs. Led by Executive Jet, "Quality Assurance Reviews" have: a) outlined the standards of customer expectations; b) evaluated pursuant to on-site audits many FBOs for the purpose of ascertaining conformance to expectations; and c) favored those FBOs that were compliant with the fractional's fueling business. The expectation level of the fractional operators is high, but certainly not unrealistic.
The securities industry refers to this evaluation process as due diligence. Nothing could be more logical - major customers want to know virtually all there is to know about the people with whom they are considering doing business. I'm all for it - it brings into focus what our customers see when they patronize our FBO. Of course I want to raise the bar and generate more business - so I listen and make every effort to comply.
An even higher level of on-site audit inspection is being effected by Executive Jet and Boeing, as they consider FBOs and airports for inclusion on the BBJ-approved list put together by the two companies. We at Burke Lakefront Airport/ Million Air drew the short straw and were the first airport/FBO to be jointly inspected by Executive Jet & Boeing. (Unlike some FBOs, we already fuel and provide ground support for between 25 to 30 727/737 aircraft a year.)
We quickly learned that we're far from being expert in all the ramifications associated with larger aircraft. To wit: the minimum turning radius demanded by these aircraft; the load bearing capacity of our ramp & runway; the height of ramp lighting; FOD procedures; ARFF capabilities; spill containment programs; snow and ice removal procedures - the list of qualitative measures goes on and on.
Our answer to inspectors' questions ("We already provide ground handling for similar aircraft.") was answered by, "That doesn't necessarily mean you're doing it right or that your ramp has an adequate load bearing level needed for safe operation."
In addition to inspections of the fuel farm, ramps, hangar, and airport, the Boeing and Executive Jet inspectors wanted to examine our 90 KVA GPU, air start, air stairs, fuel trucks, lav cart, and all the other ground support equipment that's required to be an approved provider. After thinking about the due diligence process, I concluded: "Why fight someone that in reality is trying to help us execute our job in a more professional (and quality) manner?
About the Author
Thomas Slavin is president of Million Air-Cleveland, a full-service fixed base operation at Burke Lakefront Air-port. He is also an active member of the National Air Transpor-tation Association, sponsor of the Safety 1st line service certification program.