The Battle of Chattanooga. Brother against brother—the blue and the gray. Its outcome would decide the rights of government, the states, and ultimately, the will of the people. This isn’t a Ken Burns dramatization of the Civil War, but exactly 150 years to the month in the same city, another battle was decided as pivotal to Fixed Base Operators (FBOs) and airports, as the Chattanooga campaign was to the North and the South: The FAA ruled in favor of the Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport/Lovell Field Airport Authority in a Part 16 complaint by incumbent FBO TAC Air.
Briefly in the case, the landlord—the Chattanooga Airport Authority—had built an FBO in competition with its tenant, the privately owned and operated TAC Air facility. The airport authority-owned FBO, the operation of which was contracted out to Wilson Air Center, was purportedly created to spur competition. Bittersweet to TAC Air, the airport authority’s FBO operated at a loss—there simply wasn’t enough revenue for two FBOs. It’s hard to imagine then, the irony was not lost on them when only months later the airport authority purchased the TAC Air facility for $12.4 million. Now that it owns both FBOs, it would appear that competition isn’t that important to the Chattanooga Airport Authority after all: It is revenue.
Perhaps it is a reflection of the partisan nature of politics, but divisive questions about the nature of airport owned-or-operated FBOs ripple through the aviation community in the wake of the Chattanooga experience: Is providing fuel and general FBO services an essential government service? Can an airport or airport authority, acting as landlord, unilaterally decide to compete with its tenant? And if so, under what funding mechanism?
FBOs have justifiably complained for years about the lack of minimum standards at some airports; or worse, how the lack of enforcement of published minimum standards have created unfair competitive environments in which FBOs operate. Add to that pressure the increasing interest airports, counties, cities and other municipalities have demonstrated in “getting into the FBO business” and it is little wonder why such questions make many in the private-sector FBO community bristle. Yet, is there no middle ground? What about airports that accidentally become the FBO operator when private industry fails? Or a small airport in which there is no private-sector interest in FBO services? Who then provides these essential services?
Manitowoc County Airport
One such airport now providing FBO services itself is Manitowoc County Airport in Wisconsin. Located to the southeast of nearby Green Bay, Manitowoc County Airport offers a 5,000-foot runway and a precision instrument approach, among other features. Originally served by Lakeshore Aviation, a small, privately owned FBO operating on leased land, the Manitowoc County Highway Department stepped in when the FBO grew insolvent. Lakeshore Aviation, which had provided FBO services including fuel, aircraft maintenance and flight training, experienced a sudden and precipitous drop in revenues as a direct result of the relocation of based corporate flight departments to another airport. To be clear, this was not a case of mismanagement by Lakeshore Aviation, but a small airport with an FBO that survived almost exclusively on fuel sales. The prospect of a Manitowoc without an FBO just didn’t fly, and the county stepped in to provide those essential services.
Gary Kennedy, department director of the Manitowoc County Highway Department, explains that during the transition to a county operation, feelings at the county supervisor level were mixed. Some suggested simply putting out another RFP for a new FBO.
“Maybe this model [a county-operated FBO] may work; we don’t know for sure,” says Kennedy. “But operating the FBO for the here-and-now, to determine what next steps to take makes sense. It’s a low-risk option for the county.”
Forward-thinking Manitowoc also created a well-balanced airport advisory committee to help them, acknowledging the need for private-sector involvement in navigating the airport’s future. The advisory committee, which meets once a month, discusses and updates the airport’s minimum standards, other related airport business and “…is made up of private businesses, aircraft owners and government officials,” notes Kennedy.
While Manitowoc County may eventually choose to release an RFP, the current model seems to be working, says Kennedy. “It’s worked out well. We outsourced flight training and [aircraft] charter services, and we kept the expertise at the FBO by hiring former Lakeshore Aviation employees to fuel airplanes, and provide light aircraft maintenance.”
Auburn Municipal Airport
Still smaller airports have retained FBO rights from the outset. Auburn Municipal Airport in Washington has operated the FBO and airport using contract management services since the airports’ earliest years. As Shelley Coleman, finance director for the City of Auburn, notes, one of the reasons for contracting out FBO services is straightforward: “As a municipality, it is difficult to find [city] staff that have airport knowledge. We want to operate the airport as efficiently and responsibly as possible, and this [contracted services] has worked for us.”
In addition to acting on behalf of the City of Auburn providing traditional FBO services, the contracted airport management company provides security, collects rent, performs annual hangar inspections, and provides general airfield maintenance, such as light facility and equipment repair, and grounds keeping.
Perhaps the most commonly associated role of an FBO is its life blood, i.e., fuel sales. And as might be expected with that revenue stream, public sector and contract FBOs receive eerily similar feedback about their fuel prices as their private-sector FBO counterparts. As Coleman says, “While it [contracted FBO services] gives us a little bit more control over the price of fuel, we can’t give the fuel away. It is a very sensitive market, credit card processing fees are high, and we still hear complaints every time the cost of fuel goes up.”
Sadly, there is no one-size-fits-all answer to the many questions created by the recent battle of Chattanooga. The experiences in Manitowoc and Auburn are unique and positive, and each represents just one of many ways FBOs transition from a private to a public-sector operation, and blur the lines between FBO models. Certainly arguments can be made about the proper way for an airport to become engaged in the FBO business, and how to foster competition at an airport.
But whatever the means, communities need thriving airport businesses and deserve a vibrant and healthy airport. Whether private or publicly owned and operated, both contribute to the local economy, and both provide jobs and access. Rather than seek the answer to the overly broad and contentious question of who should be in the FBO business—the private sector or the public sector—healthy debate should surround which model best serves a given community in a given situation, and what role each should play.
Douglas Wilson, President & Founder, FBO Partners LLC
Douglas Wilson is the president and founder of FBO Partners LLC, an aviation consulting firm that provides asset management of hangar facilities for FBOs, and offers specialized consulting in due diligence, contract life-cycle management, and other FBO disciplines. Wilson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.