A Seasoned Point of View
Blake Fish talks about industry changes, training, customer focus
By John F. Infanger, Editorial Director
DAYTONA BEACH, FL — Blake Fish is a man who has lived the FBO circuit. Back once again with Signature Flight Support, he helps direct the array of aviation businesses in the network from the company’s glass-paneled headquarters in Orlando. It belies his comfortable demeanor, which is more evident after a regular commute home to New Hampshire. The aviation services business is one about which he can talk.
Fish, 53, is currently the senior VP of marketing and business development for Signature. He started his career working as a passenger services rep while attending the University of Maine and it soon turned into his first full-time aviation position. From there, he...
• worked as refueling supervisor at Atlantic Aviation in Philadelphia;
• served as ground services manager at Atlantic Wilmington (DE);
• served as operations manager at Combs-Gates Hartford and GM at Page Avjet Rochester;
• got into cargo development for Airport Systems/U.S. Airports;
• became regional vice president for "the new Butler," which was subsequently integrated into Signature Flight Support, formed by the merger of Butler Aviation and Page Avjet; and,
• headed up the flight support division of Atlantic Aviation for two years before returning to Signature.
Fish took a break during a Signature Flight University management training session to talk with AIRPORT BUSINESS. SFU is a joint training initiative of Signature and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. Here are his edited comments.
The Changing Face of FBO Training
Signature Flight Support, which operates the largest chain of fixed base operations as well as maintenance bases and a large airline service division, several years ago embarked on a major revamping of its employee/management training. Today, its extensive program includes a companywide safety training effort and an initiative with Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University at the Daytona Beach, FL, campus. FBO veteran Blake Fish recently shared his thoughts on the industry’s approach toward training.
"Traditionally, many FBOs had in place a process where they handed new hires all the videotapes and said, go watch them. But no one can assimilate training that way.
"The concept should be, I’m going to show you a video of what I’m going to go teach you. And then show you the video that gets you familiar with the procedures, and then we go out and do OTJ (on-the-job training) with a trainer. So in the morning you see a video; in the afternoon, you go out and do what you saw and what you learned on the video. And then the next morning when you come back, the first thing that you do is we review what you did yesterday, and then we start on what we’re going to do this afternoon.
"It was a constant re-enforcement. And when you turned a guy loose, you had to have somebody there watching him. And you didn’t turn the guy loose. And we used to say if you can get a guy fully trained in two weeks, you’re doing real well. And you know, for the next six months, the guy really wasn’t fully trained. I mean, he was trained, but you always were concerned. You always made sure that he got special attention as opposed to just cutting him loose.
"I think if you hired a lineman, in two years that guy would today be exposed to most of the scenarios he’s going to run into in his career. At that point, it’s an unusual thing to find something different.
"You’ve got to train and train and train, and that still doesn’t guarantee that you’re not going to have incidents."
AIRPORT BUSINESS: I think you’d agree that in the last 10 years or so the industry has changed, in terms of the airport environment. You talked earlier about the accreditation that the airport managers have now, and in the FBO business a lot of the folks, whether they’re second generation or totally new, are coming in with business degrees and the like. Talk a little bit about how the industry has changed in the last 15 years.
FISH: Clearly the people that are coming into our business maybe initially come to a place like this (Embry-Riddle) and think they want to be a pilot. They decide that’s not really what they want to do, but they want to be in aviation. And so they come out with more of a business focus.
I think my generation was really the first generation of people that were businessmen first and pilots second. And I think that’s become even moreso as time goes by. We’ve got a lot of guys still that are GMs and pilots, but don’t fly anymore; they just don’t find they have time. So it clearly is becoming a much more professional environment.
My first GM job was with Page [Avjet], and you went in there and they said okay, here’s your numbers, do your budget. And that was about it. There wasn’t a whole lot of oversight. The corporation didn’t really spend any time saying, let’s talk about where we’re going as a company, as a division. It was always base-specific. And so there wasn’t that broad overview that said this is what Page Avjet or this is what Butler stands for. With one exception, probably with Combs-Gates.
And Combs at that time said, this is what we stand for, this is what we are. I was only with Combs for 18 months. When you went to work for them they said okay, you’re going to go to Indianapolis, you’re going to go to Denver, and you’re going to learn what Combs stands for. You clearly understood that you were working for the best FBO chain and that these were the standards.
Now, of course, we’ve gone much further from that. I think today there’s a tremendous amount of corporate oversight, and a tremendous amount of corporate support. The communication has just dramatically improved. Today, everything’s email. It’s real simple to say, effective immediately, we’re going to do this and send it to 43 bases that day. You can change the direction of the company pretty quickly.
AB: I don’t know of anyone who predicted the economic surge that this country went through during the ’90s after the Gulf War, or the growth in fractional ownership. Those things kind of came together. How do you think those two factors have changed the business?
FISH: There’s a little nuance on the economic surge; one of the things that’s happened is that having guys like Warren Buffet in fractionals contributes to it. Whether it’s a shuttle airplane that’s moving a bunch of engineers and middle managers back and forth, or whether it’s a sales tour where there’s four or five guys on board, it’s now a corporate tool.
Just by virtue of that occurring, you’re creating more demand for aircraft because you’ve got more people that it’s serving.
The fractionals are just a new world, a new industry. It’s something that nobody ever thought of before. And it’s so logical and makes so much sense; I’m not sure when it will stop.
AB: One of the things that fractionals has done is significantly change the makeup of the fleet that comes into FBOs. Do you see this new makeup of the fleet as something that is impacting how the customer views the FBO and how the FBO views the services that it provides?
FISH: You’re seeing bigger airplanes, affecting the size of our ramps and the size of our facilities. And how are we going to accommodate that, particularly as we get in places where [Signature tends] to be, which are the heavy hub airports, where there’s more and more pressure for space just to serve the normal airlines. And [airports] start to covet GA areas. And I think that’s an issue that we in business aviation are going to be very seriously concerned with, in the not-too-distant future, in the next few years. Certainly we’re seeing it in Boston, LaGuardia, places like that where there’s tremendous pressure on us from a space perspective.
There’s more types of aircraft, more requirement for training. We don’t have any choice but to do a tremendous amount of in-depth technical training just because of the complexity of aircraft and the numbers of aircraft that we’re now serving.
I think in the old days, and part of it was because of regulation but part of it also was just I think things were a little bit simpler. You didn’t have quite the same in-depth technical requirements for training that we do today.
AB: If you talk to the insurance companies, they will tell you a direct cause of the dramatic increases in insurance lately has been the new fleet that’s out there. A ding today costs a lot more than a ding did ten years ago. So, a two-fold question: One is, how has that impacted your business’ insurance? And how do you see it impacting the overall industry?
FISH: Well, we’re paying more in insurance premiums. That means our costs go up; that means we have to charge for it. Being a big company is a double-edged sword. First of all, because we’re (so-called) sophisticated and knowledgeable of our costs, we recognize those things and we price to cover them. That’s why we’re higher priced than most guys; we really do understand what our costs are. We work real hard to make sure that we’re getting a return on them. We have investors that expect it.
Some smaller FBOs don’t necessarily understand the risks and don’t necessarily charge for it. The [insurance] market’s tightening and costs are going up and it’s going to be tougher and tougher to get insurance. And it’s going to be tougher and tougher to keep costs down. And again, it’s training.
AB: One of the things that we’ve heard for some time is the word consolidation. And you are working for what some consider the consolidator, or one of them. Interestingly, I remember having conversations about this when Van Dusen was buying up the FBO world. Yet, today it’s not hard to find people who say, who’s Van Dusen? So in terms of consolidation, is it really a trend?
FISH: I talked to a guy who runs a single business at [the NATA convention], a sophisticated and knowledgeable guy in our industry. He said he’s absolutely scared to death that there won’t be mom and pop FBOs down the road for a number of reasons. It is becoming so expensive to train, so expensive to insure, so expensive to keep up on the customer databases and all of the things that you as a big company can take and spread over 43 locations. The costs are much less. For a single guy to try and do a point-of-sale machine from scratch, it can’t be done. They just can’t afford it.
And so, today I think it is weighted towards the chain. Having said that, the big challenge is to ensure that you don’t lose sight of that individual transaction. The danger for the chains is that we get so big that we lose the ability to deal with one person, one customer, one day at a time.
The ability to take advantage of the savings of spreading your costs and still providing focused service to the customers is the challenge.
AB: We ran an article relating the concerns of airport managers, and number one was capacity. And capacity is really a two-fold thing: it’s capacity on the ground, in terms of airport infrastructure, and it’s also capacity in the air, in terms of the air traffic control system. What are your thoughts on capacity and its impact on FBOs, on the ground and in the air?
FISH: I’m not really technically competent to talk about in the air. But on the ground there is clearly an issue. The BBJ is 2.4 times as big as the old G-II. That was the queen of the fleet and we built most of our ramps for the G-II, maybe the G-III. Now we’re seeing the IVs, the Vs, the BBJs, and the Airbus. And these are just dramatically larger.
And, there’s a requirement now for brand new GSE. You’ve got to get new tugs, new towbars. If they’re carrying a lot more people, we’ve got catering kitchen requirements. It’s just everything’s bigger.
We’re concerned also about the ability of ramps to handle the weight. Just a couple of years ago, you’d lay out a new facility and say, okay, I’m going to carve off this much space and this can be my 727 sports team parking pad. To conserve capital, you’d say this is where I’m going to handle those wider body aircraft. The wheel load for a 727 was the most you had.
Now, EJ’s going to have, what, seven BBJs by the end of this year? We’re going to see those airplanes everywhere. They’ve done a heck of a job working with Boeing, analyzing airports, and I know they’ve gotten heavily involved with airport managers. A lot of them didn’t necessarily want to hear what they needed to hear, but then it gave them validation to go and get the funding that they needed.
The unfortunate thing with the BBJ and the Airbus is that they’re fighting an irrational fear of big aircraft. People see those airplanes and think noise, and that’s not the case. We’ve got a lot smaller aircraft that are flying in and out of our facilities that are much, much noisier. But there’s that irrational neighborhood-type fear that’s going to be an issue.
AB: Often, the first thing the anti-airport groups do is take a picture of a DC-10 and put it on a leaflet and say, "Do you want this coming into your community?" And it seems that now they might have some validation in the public’s mind that bigger airplanes are coming in, and people don’t tend to equate newer airplanes with less noise. They tend to tie bigger airplanes with more noise.
FISH: But so much of it is emotional. I remember when I worked for Combs in Hartford. Hartford used to be a diversion point for the Concorde. One time, because of freezing rain and snow in New York, the airplane diverted into Hartford. They shut down the trip and bussed the passengers to New York, and it hit the news because it was the first time the Concorde had landed at Bradley International. They announced that they were going to leave at 1:00 the next afternoon. And at 1:00, one of the main carriers with probably a 727 took off and the switchboard immediately lit up with all the noise complaints. And the Concorde left at 3:00.