FBO as Facilitator

Jan. 8, 1999

FBO as Facilitator

A manager shares how taking an active role in airport growth issues can serve all involved

BY Alan C. Nitchman, Vice president, Operations, Elliott Aviation, Inc.

January / February 1999

Since serving as VP-GM at Elliott's Minneapolis fixed base operation, Al Nitchman has since been promoted to VP-Operations for Elliott's Midwest chain, based in Moline, IL. He can be contacted at (309) 799-3183.

Managers of aviation businesses face the continuing challenge of managing assets to their fullest potential. Quite significant among these is the task of working with communities and airport authorities to be a good neighbor and a good business partner, particularly when airport expansion is critical to the company's future.

In light of this, I'd like to share some experiences which I have had with the City of Eden Prairie, MN, and the Metropolitan Council and Metropolitan Airports Commission in Minneapolis/St. Paul.

Understanding the scenario
With my assignment as VP and general manager of the Elliott Aviation, Inc., facility on the Flying Cloud Airport (FCM), it quickly became apparent that in order for Elliott to maximize its investment, there was a need for an extension of the existing runway from 3,900 feet to 5,000 feet. It had been a project that had been on the books for close to 20 years.

The first order of business was to gain an understanding of the problem and then develop a method to measure success (or lack thereof). A thorough briefing by the retiring VP provided a clear vision that the City of Eden Prairie had many concerns which were not being addressed.

The owner of the airport, the Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC), was viewed with mistrust by the community and some airport operators. The controlling body, the Metropolitan Council, had a full agenda of activities, including growth and development of the Twin Cities area. Sufficiently armed with information, it was now time to become involved.

Connecting with the community
Reaching out to the business community through various organizations (Chamber of Commerce, Rotary, airport business groups) is a good way to get a sense for community issues. Learn how local projects get accomplished, and take an empathic position to the concerns of others so that your own positions will be heard at the appropriate time. Try to work closely with all interested groups.

At Eden Prairie, this required making pro-airport presentations to anti-airport groups; becoming president of the Minnesota Aviation Trade Association and the Flying Cloud Business Association; taking an active role as a member and chairperson for the Transportation Committee of the Eden Prairie Chamber of Commerce; and getting involved with the Minnesota Business Aircraft Association and the Reliever Committee for the Twin Cities Airports Task Force.

It also required creating public relations efforts to correct poor images; this was coordinated with the Chamber, the city, and the MAC. Other positive steps included volunteering FBO facilities for open houses, community meetings related to transportation, industry meetings such as local business aviation groups, and metropolitan presentations concerning the growth of the area.

It's a tremendous commitment of time and resources. In our case, the potential approval of the expansion project was seen as a very tangible return on company investment.

Building relations with decisionmakers
It's critical that decisions to be made concerning the future expansion of the airport not be made by airport interests alone. Rather, become a facilitator for all aspects of the process and the parties involved so that what is accomplished is done through a sense of respect.

This is achieved through an honest approach to all issues. It requires holding meetings with city leaders and staff members so that all are communicating from the same position. Often, many aspects of broken communication are uncovered along the way. They could be within the FBO's organization, within the city structure, or at the community level. The task as facilitator is to identify these areas and develop a finessed approach to opening the lines of communication.

Whether working within the structure of a major metropolitan area or a smaller municipality, establish the proper approach to ensure that your project is kept on track. This can't be done without some strategic partners. Start with the controlling body of the airport and seek advice on how a task should be approached. This often requires meetings from the top down and bottom up of the organization.

Be cautious not to overstep authority without having the support of all parties. Meet and discuss your concerns and seek approval of your tactics. Having the support of this group from multiple fronts is critical to take the next steps.

At this stage at Eden Prairie, I continued the role of facilitator and worked to coordinate between two independent government bodies while developing the process with individuals within the community and business groups. This became a challenging task and once again professionalism was paramount. The word "empathy" continued to drive our actions.

The result of this effort was to win the support of the decisionmakers so that they promoted the expansion position. The city, not an advocate, put forth a considerable effort to stop the process. The key to continuing the process was having the support of the controlling force (airport sponsor).

We reiterated to the sponsor that, as an operating business on the airport, we were committed to working long hours and to being the conduit to facilitating communications or whatever it might take to make their task easier to accomplish.

It was not our task to determine how or when they should make their proposal to the governing body (the Metropolitan Council). It was our task to understand their concerns and then set out to assist in resolving them.

An ongoing process
It takes many attempts to complete this approval process, and once completed you have just begun. Following the approval of our long-term expansion plan comes environmental impact studies, more community meetings, and ongoing discussions with interested and disinterested parties. All this while we continue to coordinate previous accomplishments.

A key element is to have confidence that the airport manager understands his or her job in completing the process so that there are no missed steps which would allow for legal action. My experience is that these people are professionals and understand their responsibilities.

Once a project's approved, continue to work with the governing authority as there will continue to be challenges, real and perceived. There will be more communication breakdowns between the organizations, and you will have to facilitate resolutions so that the process can continue.

When does this all stop? Well, never. At Eden Prairie, another major concern raised by the city was the economic impact of the airport on the community. Outside experts were brought in to conduct an economic impact study that addressed these concerns. It was an expensive undertaking that, in the end, resulted in a complete review of the reliever system and its contribution to the area. (In FCM's case, the contribution is $90 million annually.)

We may not yet have our runway extension, but we have a program that's on track. The goal again appears on our radar screen — a direct result of getting involved.