A Look at the Typical Maintenance FBO

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.

 

Challenges

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.

In today’s economy, at almost every airport you go to and every FBO you visit, you will find several aircraft projects that have been started and put on hold or abandoned altogether due to the lack of funds. When a project is delayed this is not good for the customer, the business, or the aircraft. At a typical FBO, just doing annual inspections and routine maintenance is not sufficient to keep the lights burning. A large percentage of the annual income of FBO facilities is generated through major repairs or alterations or rebuild projects.

Small FBOs are generally located at small county or municipal airports and the facilities which are supposed to be maintained by the local government authorities aren’t always getting the support they need. I went to a FAA sponsored flight safety seminar a while back and had a conversation with the FBO operator there about local politics and the lack of support from the local authorities. Apparently the challenges associated with trying to maintain a decent facility and pleasant environment to work in are not geographically sensitive.

Unfortunately the airport facilities seem to be on the bottom of the list as far as the authorities are concerned. It would make sense to me that the local airport should be a big part of having a thriving community. Many local business owners have businesses in other places or live in other places, and use their aircraft for their business travel, not to mention vacationing. You would think that the governing authorities would realize the importance of having a working rest room, a roof that doesn’t leak, or a taxiway that isn’t gravel and full of holes. These items should be considered necessities but frequently don’t make it through the budgeting process.

And, the operators of these facilities frequently aren’t even allowed to do some repairs themselves out of their own pockets. With more stringent environmental concerns, authorities no longer allow operators to wash airplanes or engines at their facilities due to EPA hazardous regulations.

 

Industry trends

In my opinion, East Texas is a wonderful place to live, especially close to the coast, but it is also very hard on aircraft. One of the things that we do at our facility is corrosion prevention, treatment, and repairs. Aircraft located and maintained in this area require special attention pertaining to corrosion issues because just like humans, they are a product of their environment.

At the last IA seminar I went to there was a representative from Cessna doing a segment on corrosion and its impact on the aging general aviation fleet. The best advice I can offer is nip it in the bud. The best way to prevent corrosion from being a major issue is to do extensive inspections using a flash light and mirror or even a borescope in difficult-to-see places. If you see signs of corrosion, clean and treat the area immediately.

In the last year we have disassembled and repaired three Cessna wings for corrosion on the front spars and the leading edges at the lower lap joint, and I have two more in the shop now. Other areas to pay particular attention to are areas with dissimilar metals such as the steel fittings on the aluminum flight controls on Piper aircraft and foam-filled trailing edges on some Cessna controls.

Another trend that I have noticed in the last year is cylinder compression failure on large bore engines. In the past few years there have been several bulletins addressing the issue of low compression on fairly new cylinders and even stated in one bulletin that sometimes a compression reading slightly below the minimum, according to the aircraft maintenance manuals, may still be airworthy.

I just want to say that we have had a larger than normal volume of failed cylinders in the last year and in each case the cylinders were pulled and found to have cracks or wear that was out of limits. Many of these cylinders only had 300 or 400 hours on them. I would encourage anyone who is having issues with engine compression being border-line to consider pulling the cylinder for further investigation.

 

A great resource

Your local FBO is a great place to work, a great place to take your aircraft, or even a great place to just get advice. I believe the IAs that run these FBOs are the only people you can go to with your general aviation aircraft that can probably repair anything that is broke. They can answer any question that you may have regardless if it is concerning operating, repairing, or regulatory issues. No one can answer every question about every aircraft but the IA will be your best shot.

If you are looking for a career opportunity where you can learn to work on every part of the aircraft and possibly get the training required for your A&P ticket or even your IA endorsement, the FBO is the place to go.

 

David Boudreaux is currently the owner of Boudreaux Aviation Services, a general aviation FBO located in Orange, TX, at the Orange County Airport.

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