As you travel across the country today you will discover that there are thousands of airports to visit large and small, public and private. A significant number of these airports will offer numerous and various amenities one of which possibly being a general aviation maintenance facility known as FBOs or a fixed base of operations.
From a maintenance perspective it has always been my understanding that an FBO was a base of operations for an aircraft inspector, but often I find that what many of these airports call an FBO today is nothing more than an airport terminal building with facilities for pilots and no maintenance staffing or capability at all.
When I use the term FBO I am referring to a maintenance facility that is typically run by a licensed A&P mechanic with an inspection authorization (IA) endorsement. At many smaller county or municipal airports, the staffing may be just the mechanic or the mechanic and one helper. At the larger airports with an adequate customer base (30 aircraft minimum), there is usually the business owner or operator (the IA), one to three A&P mechanics, one or two helpers or trainees, and perhaps a secretary or book keeper. The IA alone is the backbone of these organizations. He or she is responsible for everything that happens at the facility including aircraft logbook entries, training of employees, AD research, safety issues, FAA and EPA regulations, and proper maintenance practices to name a few.
The key to running a successful FBO is customer satisfaction, which is generally accomplished by versatility. The majority of the aircraft maintained by these general aviation maintenance facilities are FAR Part 91 aircraft. They are privately owned by individuals who use them for their personal use. These aircraft have all the same needs as the ones used in commercial and corporate aviation but there are few FBOs that have the ability to meet all of their needs in one place.
It is not convenient or cost-effective to have to take your aircraft to one facility to have an inspection done, another facility to have paint work done, another to have sheet metal work done, and another to have avionics work done, etc. Therefore, the more capability that you have at your FBO, the better your chances of being able to keep your customers satisfied. This does, however, create a number of challenges.
The largest challenge for the typical FBO today is finding and keeping qualified mechanics. Good qualified A&P mechanics seem to be a dying breed these days. It has often been said that an A&P license is nothing more than a license to learn, and it has been my experience that this is only becoming more evident as time goes on. It seems that if you hire an A&P straight out of school, they generally have little or no experience and therefore there is a significant learning curve that has to take place before they are very productive.
On the other hand, in most of the aviation maintenance facilities across the country everything is specialized. In other words, you have sheet metal technicians, electricians, an avionics shop, hydraulics shop, etc. All of these guys are considered good qualified A&P mechanics, but as an FBO owner who wants to have the versatility to provide all of these services to customers in one place, an A&P who can only trouble shoot and work on hydraulic systems doesn’t possess the training necessary to be a valuable asset to the success of the business.
Another significant challenge to the FBO today is the state of the economy. As mentioned earlier, most of the aircraft maintained at these facilities are for personal use, and that being the case, when the economy turns south so does the business for the FBO. It is not cheap to own, maintain, or operate an aircraft of any type and so when finances become limited the first thing to go is the items of convenience or pleasure.
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