FBOs Of The Future

Dec. 12, 2012
Technology improvements for FBOs, fuel suppliers, flight departments, and software vendors will take on a new sense of urgency as industry gains the ability to link systems and cost-effectively deploy system solutions

Technology impacts business, but generally escapes headlines as consumer examples abound and are far more newsworthy. In aviation business some technology changes are readily apparent. For example, during the last 20 years I have watched the cockpit evolve from using LORAN to GPS to downloadable applications for mobile phones. Navigating waypoints via LORAN was impressive and 20 years ago a moving map overlay during the approach via a phone the size of a deck of cards would have been unimaginable. 

Change can create fear, however. Just twelve years ago the technology challenge we faced was the fear of Y2K. Laughable now, fear over computational architecture schemed in the late 1960’s resulted in a massive effort to ensure data would not be lost and systems would run.  There were threats of airplanes falling from the sky at midnight on December 31, 1999. Of course, we know nothing catastrophic occurred.

Within our industry we tend to be early adopters of technology. For example, we have moving-map GPS for display in the business aircraft cabin, air-to-ground messaging, and software systems to track parts and predictive maintenance on airframes and engines. The FAA has long made available databases of aircraft and airmen information and worked to deliver weather and flight planning in real-time. A perception exists of pilots' enthusiasm for gadgetry, but workflow and safety has improved due to the aforementioned changes.

Impacts of Technology

FBOs have faced technology challenges and, unlike aircraft operators, have generally been slower to adopt new technology. For instance, credit card processing continues to use carbon paper and manual imprinters, whereas many industries process via mobile applications available for nearly 15 years.

A common scene at many FBOs is a self-serve fuel terminal connected via phone lines to client machines inside the FBO, and at the counter there are standalone credit card machines; both with no connectivity to any accounting programs. Interactions with fuel suppliers are primarily manual, requiring phone calls, paper invoicing, and providing no shipment updates to customers. In contrast, outside our industry logistics companies generally provide mobile applications, email updates, and GPS tracking of shipments.

Over the next five years I feel technology improvements in the aviation industry will take on a new sense of urgency, primarily driven by cloud-based information technology and lower implementation costs. Projects dreamed of a decade ago will deploy due to the commonality of mobile devices: sales and credit card swiping on the ramp; coupons as the pilot arrives; line service tracking anywhere on airport property; and instantaneous sales and inventory reporting. Data plans on cellular networks are no longer a concern and give access to the internet affording remote connectivity with no infrastructure.

The FBO of the future will benefit from improvements in communications, shipment tracking, mobile wallets, and mobile location services.    Instant access to fuel sales will be available remotely 24-hours per day, allowing smaller FBOs to operate like large competitors. Fuel orders will occur automatically, driven by wireless tank automation systems and send real-time shipment updates like Amazon.com does today. 

The pilot’s experience will improve due to single data entry at the flight department level and instant reservation alerts at the FBO. Connected to flight tracking systems in the cloud, the FBO's front desk personnel will receive push notifications of inbound aircraft and deliver higher level customer service.

Workflow Simplification

Technology allows participants in the sales process to enter a free market through pricing auctions or bid systems for the best prices. Even the smallest FBOs will do their bidding and acquisition of fuel via online auction systems. Similarly, flight departments will choose an FBO based on electronic decision-making using a combination of fuel price, hangar rates, catering costs, and services. 

Fuel companies will use their buying power and demand auctions and dispatch via the best carrier price in a given market. Likewise, suppliers will optimize terminal pricing to provide the FBO the lowest price. Multiple racks will compete for fuel sales or use inventory algorithms in place of weekly or daily pricing and fuel will be sold into-storage real-time.

Other aspects of FBO workflow will simplify via technology. With the pervasiveness of mobile devices, checklists will move to web-based applications. For example, quality control checklists on refuelers will push to line service technicians, and connections to electronic metering systems will prevent flow unless proper quality control procedures are completed. Fuel suppliers will monitor activity and support FBOs with computer based training modules and videos. 

On refuelers, VoIP systems will allow fuel supplier representatives to communicate with line service or monitor a fueling operation via video.  Around the FBO, checklist applications will track aircraft for revenue and ensure overnight fees for hangar and ramp are applied. The mundane aspects of facility maintenance will also use mobile applications. Connectivity to inventory systems will automate supply ordering for the office, bathrooms, break rooms, and lobby areas.

Technology Barriers

Unlike other industries, a lack of standards exists and there is little potential for cooperation among vendors and suppliers as each makes business decisions regarding integration costs. In other industries open-source agreements have overcome cost and competitive barriers to spawn technology revolutions.

As a leading fuel supplier, we have long recognized the need for technology and have undertaken multiple initiatives over the last two decades to provide cutting edge programs for our FBOs and cardholders. EPIC’s CompassTransaction Management System is just  one example of the many products and services we are developing to help our customers grow through technology and innovation. 

Our websites are the springboard to interface with external systems and support cardholders and FBOs allowing transfer of information to outside systems. Our focus at EPIC is ensuring systems are: scalable, replicable, cost-efficient, and customer centric. Our customers, both cardholder and FBO, drive our business decision making and determine where investments are made. We serve as a business partner to our customers and are striving to meet the obvious objectives, but also seek technology to give us a competitive edge. 

About the Author

John Nelson

Chief Product Officer for EPIC Aviation, LLC.