I recently talked with an FBO manager about an age-old and nationwide aviation opportunity/problem. The airport authority seems to be interested in taking bids from other FBOs or even taking over FBO services itself.
Lawd, I feel like an old timer. The first time I got involved with a situation like this was back in the early 1970s, when I was working in dealer development for a Piper distributor.
The airport authority certainly has the right to negotiate leases and accept bids from other FBOs. To do so properly, however, the authority must decide how to value the current FBO. The first questions should be, “What does the authority want from an FBO? How well is our current FBO providing what we want, and how likely is it that we will get it from a new FBO or by doing it all ourselves?”
A good FBO is the welcome mat for those who fly into the community. Continuity is important, particularly if your airport attracts, or wants to attract, tourists and businesspeople (what airport doesn’t?). In the case discussed here, the FBO has been on the airport continuously for 25 years, during which the authority has received one -- repeat, one -- complaint from a customer. Even that customer praised the FBO but complained about a service fee. Can another FBO guarantee 25 more years of good service?
Years ago an airport I knew well terminated the lease with its FBO of about 20 years. One authority member later told me, with evident sadness that, “We thought we were getting a better FBO for the community, but we were wrong. It’s worse.”
Good FBOs maintain good safety records. When the airport has had safe service for years, it’s easy to forget that such a record takes experience, commitment, and hard work. As the saying goes, it don’t come easy. New FBOs may not know the local weather, the local pilots, and the quirks of the airport and area. When I was selling insurance, more than one new FBO moaned to me that “I don’t know what I’m doing wrong. We keep having these accidents.” Most of the time the accidents diminish as the FBO gains experience in that locale. I remember one insurance company that wouldn’t cover an FBO with less than five years of experience. Then, of course, some FBOs are just plain dangerous.
Authorities look at fuel sales and think, “If we pumped the fuel ourselves we could keep all of that pie.” The truth is, as we rednecks say, “There ain’t no pie ‘til somebody breaks some eggs.” The profit comes not from “pumping” fuel, but from “selling” fuel. Some of those airplanes buy fuel because the FBO has served them well over the years.
Frankly, I avoided airports at which the authority sells the fuel. I flew over Tallahassee, FL for years and never bought gas there but once. At that time the authority pumped the fuel; they gave damned poor service and I chose to buy fuel elsewhere. There are exceptions—Elizabethton, TN, comes to mind—but they are few and far between.
Swapping FBOs is a bit like getting a divorce to get a new spouse. It pays to look before one leaps.