Best Practices in FBO Management: IS-BAH

April 6, 2016

As if the aviation industry doesn’t have enough acronyms, a new one joined the lexicon two years ago: IS-BAH. Short for the International Standard for Business Aircraft Handling, the somewhat odd-sounding acronym is to its credit, much less of a mouthful than its unabridged version. Coupling a voluntary best practices for business aircraft ground handlers with a robust safety management system (SMS), IS-BAH is one of the best things to happen to the FBO industry since it started selling jet fuel. Let me be clear: IS-BAH is here to stay, it is the future, and unlike pundits unfamiliar with the standard, I am not afraid of being on the wrong side of history years from now.

IS-BAH was developed over a two-year period of time, its genesis being floated at the European Business Aviation Association (EBAA). For its development of the standard, the International Business Aviation Council (IBAC) entered into a working agreement with the National Air Transportation Association (NATA) to incorporate NATA’s Safety 1st Ground Audit Program into a single, global standard for business aviation ground handling. Infused throughout this standard is the requirement for an FBO or BAHA — which stands for Business Aviation Handling Agency — to adopt and maintain an SMS program. The IS-BAH standard mimics the structure of IBAC’s popular IS-BAO program for business aircraft operators, and similarly, the IS-BAH standard is entirely voluntary for an FBO. One may ask when the last time a voluntary standard found worldwide adoption? The Golden Rule comes to mind: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

Early adopters of IS-BAH aside, an FBO or BAHA can be forgiven for not fully understanding its nuances. IS-BAH is after all still quite young a standard, yet already myths circulate within the industry about it. “We’re already a safe operation, and have been for years we don’t need it” may be heard from some FBOs. One of the common misconceptions by FBOs of IS-BAH is that safe operations don’t need the standard. But, an FBO that goes years without an accident isn’t necessarily safe- it may just be lucky. To use an aviation metaphor, is a pilot safe just because he or she hasn't had an accident yet?

Another common refrain at the FBO level: “We already have a procedures manual, we don’t need someone else telling us what to do.” The painful irony of this myth is that FBOs with their own set of standard operating procedures (SOPs) are practically halfway to achieving the IS-BAH standard already, and they don’t even realize it. Even FBOs that have no published SOP manual and operate on tribal knowledge are closer than they think, because IS-BAH recognizes the value of years of learning and best practices. It simply requires the FBO to codify its existing tribal knowledge in the form of written procedures, train its employees and conduct internal auditing to ensure compliance with the FBO’s procedure. If that process sounds familiar, it should. It follows the most basic tenets of academic education any reader will recognize: A school provides a textbook (documented procedures), teachers provide classroom instruction (training), and throughout the education process, teachers or administrators periodically test children on their knowledge (audit the learning process).

Perhaps the most misunderstood nuance is that IS-BAH actually incorporates very few procedures an FBO or BAHA must adopt. For example, to quote the most current version of the IS-BAH Manual, Section 6.3.4, “The FBO/BAHA shall have policies and procedures regarding the parking of aircraft to include proper placement of safety cones and appropriate sized wheel chocks for aircraft parked on the ramp or in the hangars.” Careful examination of the sentence reveals the standard does not instruct an FBO on which chocks to use, such as rubber or wood, or which landing gear to place the chocks, such as nose gear and left main, or where cones shall be placed, such as nose and tail, and each wingtip, or even how many. IS-BAH seeks conformance, not compliance.

Another selection from the IS-BAH Manual, albeit abbreviated here is 6.8.1, “The FBO/BAHA shall have establish and implement a Fatigue Management Programme[sic]…[that] shall contain…duty time limitations.” Note again, the standard does not indicate how many hours, shifts, or otherwise employees should or should not work consecutively. In FBO operations, long hours or overtime is too often a tattered badge of honor among line service technicians. For an FBO to create its own boundaries around employee fatigue is eminently reasonable. According to Mark Rosekind, former NTSB board member and now Administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, “Fatigue has been on the NTSB Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements since the list was first created in 1990.”

Using the above examples of the use of chocks, or fatigue management, the IS-BAH standard only requires an FBO to make the effort to create its own standards, distill them into written form, communicate them to its employee group, and internally audit compliance to its own standard. In short, it asks an FBO to be accountable to itself; to do what it says it is going to do, and document it. A great many well-run FBOs already do this, and should seek IS-BAH certification.

Finally, conformance to the IS-BAH standard dictates that an SMS is incorporated into an FBO’s operation. To be sure, SMS is often misunderstood as well in the industry. It is not a manual on a shelf, but a holistic approach to safety- a means to report and communicate hazards, near-misses, incidents and accidents- all with the goal of analyzing and improving an operation. In doing so, FBOs and other businesses who incorporate SMS move from being organizations that are reactionary, to those that are proactive, to those that are ultimately predictive. Rarely will an FBO experience the same accident twice, because there is a reaction to the first. It is the FBO with a mature SMS program that can predict an accident and prevent it in the first place. Said another way, the difference between lucky and safe is an organization’s cultural distance between being reactionary and predicative.

Though still only two years old, IS-BAH is maturing and gaining traction. Recently, an FBO network of some 58 locations indicated they will be assisting their member FBOs interested in pursuing IS-BAH certification. As one industry analyst observed about IS-BAH in general, rather than wait for a governmental body- be it national or international- foist burdensome rules upon the FBO industry, wouldn’t it be easier to demonstrate through the voluntary adoption of an international best practice that there’s no need for such rulemaking in the first place? With the exception of airport minimum standards, the FBO industry remains largely unregulated. The proactive adoption of IS-BAH may be the answer to continued long-term self-regulation for the FBO industry.