AIRPORT vs. FBO
Two distinct businesses with their own special interests have one thing in common: serving the customer
BY John f. infanger, editorial director
November / December 1999
WESLEY CHAPEL, FL — William Sherry, director of aviation for the Broward County Aviation Department, which oversees Ft. Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, says the reason his group hired Barbara Churchill as director of operations was to bring in more of a customer service orientation.
To users of the former AMR Combs fixed base operation at Ft. Lauderdale, that may come as no surprise. Churchill made a name for herself at the FBO, rising to the rank of vice president before departing to work for the airport administration.
Churchill started on the FBO side in 1970 in accounting for Gates Aviation/Turner Division, and was promoted to customer service manager at the then-Combs Gates Ft. Lauderdale FBO. In 1988, Combs-Gates became AMR Combs and, in 1995, she was promoted to vice president and general manager. In 1996, she was hired by the airport.
During the recent AAAE National Airports Conference, Churchill sat down to talk with AIRPORT BUSINESS about her perspective of working on both the airport and tenant sides of the business. Along the way, she says, she has learned a few lessons which might be of value to others inside the airport fence. Here's an edited transcript of that interview.
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AIRPORT BUSINESS: Tell us about your experience when you first moved into airport operations.
Churchill: Within a couple of weeks I was totally overwhelmed by what changes had occurred in the aviation industry that I never knew existed.
From the customer service aspect, there were oodles of aspects — the cabs, the shuttle services, hotels, bathrooms. But those issues are just pieces that we would handle every day at an FBO. I didn't realize how many masters we had to serve. We have local government, we have state government, federal government that we have to serve in many different ways. We have 30-something airlines at our airport that we have to serve; vendors; parking facilities; terminal leasing. Then you have airside with all the different issues, where you're dealing with many different industries that are trying to serve the airport. Whatever their issues are, they are airport issues. Combs was just a small piece of all of those issues.
I look back at being in the FBO business and think, wow, what a piece of cake it was by comparison. At an FBO you have three or four public telephones; at an airport, you have hundreds. And that's just telephones. If you take an FBO terminal building and multiply it a hundred times, that's what you're dealing with at an airport complex. Now, add millions of people coming through that facility.
AB: At Combs-Gates, you had some interaction with the airport due to lease negotiations and other reasons. What was your perspective at that time coming from the FBO side?
Churchill: It was difficult, because they looked at us at the time as a value on real estate as almost being oceanfront property. Of course, with my FBO hat on, I couldn't see how we could afford some rates they wanted to charge. The way it came out to be equitable is we were able to have both sides have appraisals performed and if the two were far apart, then a third party would come in.
When I had my FBO hat on, of course we didn't want to spend a lot of money leasing space because we have to make a living. But if I put my airport hat on — well, so do we, and that property costs us a lot to sit there if you're not going to utilize it properly. I can see both sides of it now and I do sympathize with the FBO side.
AB: When one thinks of an AMR Combs FBO, one tends to think of the corporate customer. At an airport, your customers are much more diverse. How does it compare?
Churchill: Actually, it's all the same. It's just a matter of treating the customers the same. Their needs may be different, but they're still a customer.
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