FBO Best Practices

Dec. 28, 2015

As the years go by, it’s common to look back at a specific point in one’s career and reflect on the fact that they were once part of a team of coworkers that constituted a “dream team” of sorts. Perhaps it was just a moment in time where everyone complemented each other’s strengths; where a group of people truly worked so well together that their actions seemed as one. Even if not altogether perfect at the time, it sure makes for great memories in later years.

Yet, as fans of professional sports teams can attest, a group of all-stars does not necessarily coalesce into a great team. That is to say, a team is not simply the sum of its parts. A winning team is created by putting those with complementary skill sets together in an environment where their unique contributions are valued. In the FBO field there exists just such a formula, at least for line service.

The Rule of Thirds

Few in the aviation field make a career of line service. Weather, whirling propellers and whining engines create a cacophony that for most would result in miserable working conditions. It is a gritty, yet rewarding, endeavor for those who choose it. For others line service is a rite of passage; their destination is nothing short of the cockpit itself. And, for a different group altogether, it is a post-career landing pad, another deployment of sorts.

Yet, it is these seemingly disparate groups of employees that can complement each other and make up a successful line service team. Achieving the perfect balance within that formula is best achieved using a rule of thirds.

The first third, and arguably the most important group in building a successful line service team, are career line service employees, or “lifers.” While perhaps not the most HR-friendly term, it is in fact one of the highest compliments that can be made of a career line service employee. Lifers are the familiar faces on the ramp to pilots and passengers, those who have worked line for years, day in and day out. They will be the same faces on the ramp when the other two groups come and go, and are, in a word, invaluable.

The lifer’s contribution to line service is far beyond just an expression of seniority. They actively mentor newer line service employees, greet passengers by name because they have known them for years, and seldom make a mistake. They not only know what a Hansa Jet is, but can recall the last time they fueled one. These are employees that seldom take vacation, but when they do, it is to Oshkosh or Reno. And, they are who a savvy FBO manager wants the most when the chips are down. In short, lifers have a ramp presence to rival a Gulfstream.

The next third in the line service dream team formula is straightforward: former or current military personnel. Whether reservists, recently retired or in transition, those with a military background bring something uniquely special to line service. Unsurprisingly, they’re easy to pick out at an FBO. They are always on time, in uniform, and, it would appear, having the time of their life. This is a group who knows how to follow the rules and have fun at the same time. Their punctuality is a model for the other employees within line service, their story telling is second-to-none, and they can parallel park a Piaggio with their eyes closed. While anecdotal, former naval flight deck personnel sometimes gravitate to line service, and their inherent spatial awareness is unrivaled. “Sure, it will fit in the hangar,” they’ll say, and it always does.

Finally, the last third are those for whom line service is a stepping stone. Future pilots, mechanics or those merely interested in aviation but unsure where to start make up this category. It is also this group of employees that has the highest rate of turnover at the FBO level. It is this turnover that gives them the moniker “newbie.”

To dispel a commonly held myth turnover isn’t bad, especially if it means the employee leaving is moving toward a long-held career goal. Said another way, line service is aviation’s front door. Without turnover that door would remain closed. Still, FBO managers or HR personnel may be reluctant to hire a pilot-in-training because they realize that within a year or two that employee will inevitably move on. However, what the hiring manager misses in doing so is hiring the most engaged employee possible; one who when they leave the FBO as an employee will become the FBO’s customer.

For those presently working line service and on the path to becoming a pilot or a mechanic, every customer visiting the FBO represents a potential future employer. For this reason alone, no one working the ramp has more of a vested interest in doing well than this group of employees. Yet, because this group by definition has higher turnover among their ranks, they need the mentoring and watchful eyes of the lifers. Newbies learn the importance of a strong work ethos from the middle third--the former military. And yes, newbies contribute something even the grizzled veterans of line service occasionally need: inspiration.

Bright eyes and constant questions aside, newer employees of line service are excited to be there, for they are at the start of their aviation careers looking ahead. That wonderment can provide a renewing energy to a line service department. Plus, of course, sending a newbie on ridiculous errands such as searching “for 50 feet of flight line” never gets old for lifers.

These varied groups of employees each contribute in a complementary way to line service, and to each other. Expressed as a formula, represented in even thirds, lifers, those with a military background and newbies may be the most perfect assemblage of a dream team ever to grace an FBOs ramp. Respectively, they are the glue that holds the FBO together, the esprit de corps, and a constant source of renewable energy.

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 [email protected].