Airport vs. FBO

Nov. 8, 1999


Two distinct businesses with their own special interests have one thing in common: serving the customer

BY John f. infanger, editorial director

November / December 1999

WESLEY CHAPEL, FL — William Sherry, director of aviation for the Broward County Aviation Department, which oversees Ft. Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, says the reason his group hired Barbara Churchill as director of operations was to bring in more of a customer service orientation.

To users of the former AMR Combs fixed base operation at Ft. Lauderdale, that may come as no surprise. Churchill made a name for herself at the FBO, rising to the rank of vice president before departing to work for the airport administration.

Churchill started on the FBO side in 1970 in accounting for Gates Aviation/Turner Division, and was promoted to customer service manager at the then-Combs Gates Ft. Lauderdale FBO. In 1988, Combs-Gates became AMR Combs and, in 1995, she was promoted to vice president and general manager. In 1996, she was hired by the airport.

During the recent AAAE National Airports Conference, Churchill sat down to talk with AIRPORT BUSINESS about her perspective of working on both the airport and tenant sides of the business. Along the way, she says, she has learned a few lessons which might be of value to others inside the airport fence. Here's an edited transcript of that interview.

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AIRPORT BUSINESS: Tell us about your experience when you first moved into airport operations.

Churchill: Within a couple of weeks I was totally overwhelmed by what changes had occurred in the aviation industry that I never knew existed.

From the customer service aspect, there were oodles of aspects — the cabs, the shuttle services, hotels, bathrooms. But those issues are just pieces that we would handle every day at an FBO. I didn't realize how many masters we had to serve. We have local government, we have state government, federal government that we have to serve in many different ways. We have 30-something airlines at our airport that we have to serve; vendors; parking facilities; terminal leasing. Then you have airside with all the different issues, where you're dealing with many different industries that are trying to serve the airport. Whatever their issues are, they are airport issues. Combs was just a small piece of all of those issues.

I look back at being in the FBO business and think, wow, what a piece of cake it was by comparison. At an FBO you have three or four public telephones; at an airport, you have hundreds. And that's just telephones. If you take an FBO terminal building and multiply it a hundred times, that's what you're dealing with at an airport complex. Now, add millions of people coming through that facility.

AB: At Combs-Gates, you had some interaction with the airport due to lease negotiations and other reasons. What was your perspective at that time coming from the FBO side?

Churchill: It was difficult, because they looked at us at the time as a value on real estate as almost being oceanfront property. Of course, with my FBO hat on, I couldn't see how we could afford some rates they wanted to charge. The way it came out to be equitable is we were able to have both sides have appraisals performed and if the two were far apart, then a third party would come in.

When I had my FBO hat on, of course we didn't want to spend a lot of money leasing space because we have to make a living. But if I put my airport hat on — well, so do we, and that property costs us a lot to sit there if you're not going to utilize it properly. I can see both sides of it now and I do sympathize with the FBO side.

AB: When one thinks of an AMR Combs FBO, one tends to think of the corporate customer. At an airport, your customers are much more diverse. How does it compare?

Churchill: Actually, it's all the same. It's just a matter of treating the customers the same. Their needs may be different, but they're still a customer.

At an FBO, you pretty much have a handle on your customers and everyone that services them. With the airport, you can't have a handle on everyone that services the facility. Every passenger that comes through the facility has different experiences, and each experience is the airport. If a cab driver is nice, the airport gets a plus; if they were nasty, the airport gets a black mark.

AB: In your current job, how are your problems or challenges similar or different than when you were running an FBO?

Churchill: As an FBO operator, you're dealing with people who have a basic understanding of things aviation. You can usually come to a happy medium if there's a problem.

When you're dealing with the general public, and many do not have any aviation background, and you try to explain some of the restrictions you have in running the airport, they don't understand at all. The general public often feels that because they're taxpayers they run the airport; it's a misperception because users usually pay for airports.

AB: Knowing what you know today, has it changed your perspective in how airports and FBOs can better deal with each other?

Churchill: I think it's important for an airport to understand the FBO business, and it's up to the FBOs to explain their business and inform the airport. Both sides have different issues, and they're different businesses.

FBOs need to keep airports involved in their business. Sometimes, the only time they talk to the airport is during lease negotiations.

At Ft. Lauderdale, I conduct meetings every quarter with the FBOs and other tenants. We sit down and I bring my issues to them and they bring their issues to me. It's a meeting that's sponsored every quarter by one of the FBOs. I also instituted a similar meeting with the terminal tenants, though that's once a month because there are more issues there. We talk about the issues in a group fashion so that everybody's involved.

If I could change something when I was an FBO, maybe I'd have gotten more involved with what the airport was doing. There were a lot of times when they would have a meeting and I would miss it because I had a customer coming in; I had more important things to do. I see that sometimes at our tenant meetings. But every meeting is a chance to know each other and understand what each other is trying to do.

I used to go to noise meetings as the FBO representative and it never occurred to me to sit down with the other FBOs on the field about what I'd learned. I had tunnel vision, and FBOs sometimes have tunnel vision. I didn't share everything that I knew, even if it might have been a problem other FBOs were facing. I needed to communicate better with my peers.