Guide to Fixed-Based Operators for Small Airports
Airports around the world rely on their strategic partnerships with fixed-base operators (FBOs) to provide essential and luxury services to charter flights and other aircraft that help keep their operations running smoothly. Offering a host of services from aircraft maintenance to fuel to passenger amenities, FBOs are becoming the air travel destination of choice for private flight crews and passengers.
As the asset protection industry leader, VPS is committed to helping small airports find the right FBO solutions for them. Our guide to fixed-base operators for small airports covers everything that airports need to know about the services FBOs provide and how to partner with the right one.
Read the full article or jump to a specific section:
- What Is a Fixed-Base Operator?
- What Are the Classifications of FBOs?
- What Are Some Services Offered by FBOs?
- What Are the Benefits of Airport FBOs?
- Frequently Asked Questions About FBOs
- Does My Airport Need an FBO?
- Choose VPS for Premium Shade Structures for FBOs
What Is a Fixed-Base Operator?
An FBO is essentially a private airport terminal. As an independent commercial operation, an FBO supplies essential services and convenient amenities to major airports, private airfields, and hangars. Operating under a lease agreement with airport owners and authorities, FBOs are private enterprises that partner with airports to provide auxiliary services. FBOs help improve the private flying experience for both passengers and crews, operating a range of services from aircraft storage and fuel sales to food services and restroom facilities.
With the demand for private charter flights increasing dramatically in recent years, FBOs are becoming mainstays at most major and mid-sized airports around the world. Despite their recent boost in popularity, FBOs have been an aeronautic servicing staple since the end of World War I, when military aircraft surplus was bought up by civilian pilots who needed air terminal services, particularly fuel and mechanic servicing.
As these unregulated airfield services became more popular, the need to regulate private flying grew. The Air Commerce Act of 1926 sought to set standards for commercial flights, including terminal activities, or base operations, which gave rise to the term fixed-base operator. FBOs, like all aeronautic activities, remain strictly regulated, helping to enforce safety and maintain professional FBO operations across the country.
What Are the Classifications of FBOs?
FBO classifications are divided into three tiers based on total revenues and the scope of services provided. Below is a breakdown of how FBOs are classified based on total annual revenue:
- Tier 1 — Greater than $25 million in revenue
- Tier 2 — $10-25 million in revenue
- Tier 3 — Less than $10 million in revenue
The following is how to categorize FBOs based on their services offered:
- Tier 1: As the FBOs with the largest revenue base, tier one FBOs offer a comprehensive range of services, including aircraft storage, fueling services, facilities, and multiple amenities. They offer extensive mechanical services, including the availability of OEM parts, and can service turbine charter aircraft.
- Tier 2: Tier two FBOs also have hangar space and fuel services but are limited in their aircraft servicing. They also offer charter management and flight instruction and are equipped to service specialized missions, including medevac, geophysical, and surveillance aircraft.
- Tier 3: Tier three FBOs are the smallest and the most common FBO, offering hangar space and fuel service but no aircraft maintenance and servicing. They cannot cater to turbine aircraft and instead provide services for turboprop and piston aircraft.
In addition to the above tiers, FBO operators can also be classified by the number of FBO locations they own and operate. The following is how FBOs are classified based on locations:
- Small independent — 10 or fewer
- Medium independent — 11-30
- Large independent — 31-60
- Chain — 61 or more
The combination of the above classification systems provides a general overview of how to determine the type of FBO in question, whether based on services, revenues, or number of locations.
What Are Some Services Offered by FBOs?
FBOs offer an extensive range of services and provide a convenient solution for all aeronautic-related activities. Novel services are often borne out of the availability of FBOs, including new and convenient ways to transport people and goods quickly and cost-effectively.
Services offered by FBOs depend on the tier of FBO. Below are some of the types of services that FBOs may offer.
Air Travel and Transport Services
FBOs serve as a base for commercial air transport services, including charter and private flights. Air charters use FBOs rather than commercial public airports for their private flight needs. In addition to servicing charter flights, FBOs also provide other air services, including aircraft rentals for licensed private pilots and for charter companies.
Air taxi is another service available through FBOs. These small planes provide on-demand taxi services for short trips between nearby locations. FBOs also serve as a base to receive both scheduled and unscheduled air carrier services and air cargo flights.
Aircraft maintenance and servicing is a key offering of FBOs, providing technicians, parts, and equipment to service and repair aircraft on-site. Aircraft mechanics are often employed by at least tier one and tier two FBOs, and sometimes tier three FBOs may also have a mechanic on staff. When aircraft land or before take-off, technicians will perform maintenance services and any repairs, such as battery changes and hose and belt inspections, allowing pilots to get back in the air quickly and safely.
Cleaning and detailing services are also available at FBOs. Crews wash the plane's exterior and can deep clean the interior, so it's ready to serve the next load of passengers.
FBOs offer aircraft storage services, providing space for aircraft owners and pilots to park and store their planes on a short or long-term basis. For short stopovers, FBOs often provide valet or car services as a convenience for pilots.
For long-term storage, FBOs provide hangars as a secure way to keep aircraft grounded long-term. Pilots can either tie down their aircraft or rent climate-controlled hangar space, spending on how long the aircraft is to stay grounded. Hangar rentals are usually offered on a weekly, monthly or annual basis, catering to transient or based aircraft.
Fuel and Aircraft Sales
One of the most vital services that an FBO provides is fuel. FBO crews refuel a pilot’s plane quickly so they can get back in the air as fast as possible. All FBOs, regardless of size, provide aircraft with fuel. Tier one and tier two FBOs offer jet fuel for turbine aircraft, and all FBOs offer avgas for piston-powered engines. Some FBOs have fuel farms while others may also provide self-serve fueling for smaller aircraft.
In addition to providing and selling fuel, FBOs also facilitate the sale of aircraft. Given their vast network of customers, FBOs are the natural broker of aircraft sales on behalf of buyers and sellers. They facilitate research, listings, inspections, and assistance with the complete sales cycle. FBOs may also have aircraft parts in stock for sale to aircraft owners.
FBOs cater to all individuals, including passengers. Most FBOs, including ones located at small airports, generally have basic passenger amenities such as restrooms, waiting areas or lounges, and business centers with computers or internet access. Many FBOs, regardless of size, also now offer pet relief and play areas since traveling with pets has become standard and is a major reason many people choose to fly private.
At larger or full-service FBOs, passengers can expect to find more luxurious amenities, including:
- Shower facilities
- Concierge services
- Car and valet services
While crew members benefit from the same above services as passengers, other crew-specific amenities help make flying easier. From relaxing waiting areas with clean restroom facilities to lodging to car services, crews can have their needs taken care of at FBOs. Depending on the size of the FBO, there may be crew lounges or designated areas for showering, allowing crew members to relax and rejuvenate before taking to the skies again.
FBO employees also provide specialized services for flight crews and pilots, including telecommunication services and flight planning rooms. Some FBOs may also have the connections to arrange in-flight catering services and may provide essential supplies for sale that pilots need.
For FBOs that cater to international travel, FBO employees can assist with customs and immigration paperwork.
Many FBOs are also in the ideal position to run flight schools and pilot training, especially in the case of tier three FBOs and FBOs at smaller airports. Flight schools often have piston-engine and turboprop aircraft for flight school. The planes stored on-site at the FBO are used by qualified instructors to train new pilots.
Similarly, FBOs may also cater to charter companies and provide flight crew training, equipping crews with the knowledge and experience they need to deliver excellent service and meet safety standards.
Other Commercial and Industrial Services
FBOs are versatile and uniquely positioned to provide additional services beyond transport flight servicing. Many other commercial, industrial, and governmental needs can also be met through FBOs and their strategic locations and service offerings.
Some additional services that FBOs carry out include:
- Crop dusting
- Aerial photography
- Sightseeing tours
- Air surveys
- Aerial advertising
- Aircraft rentals
Additionally, independent FBOs can also expect to service air ambulance, police, and search and rescue aircraft, among other types of specialized missions using aircraft.
What Are the Benefits of Airport FBOs?
Airport FBOs provide extensive benefits to both passengers and pilots. Establishing an FBO opens up a range of new service offerings and revenue-generating sources, tapping into a more exclusive market that is seeking a luxury experience.
Below are some of the benefits of FBOs.
Private and Hassel-Free Experience
For passengers and flight crews alike, FBOs provide a convenient and luxurious air travel experience. Public airports are busy, crowded, and often subject to unpredictable delays. Public air travel can be a stressful experience even for seasoned travelers. With sudden gate switches, flight cancelations, and other issues, flying through public terminals can be disruptive and confusing.
The FBO experience seeks to overcome some of these major issues by providing a private, peaceful, and seamless way to fly. With private amenities, passengers and flight crews can relax and wait for their flights in clean and spacious waiting areas. With robust service offerings, passengers also enjoy the benefits of additional support in making traveling easier and more comfortable.
Improved Customer Service
Many passengers experience impersonal, stressful interactions at busy airports, as airline workers are under immense pressure to keep air travel on schedule. Often, this results in customers not receiving the service they expect for the price they pay to travel by commercial air.
FBOs provide an alternative to this norm, offering excellent customer service that meets the needs of private flight passengers. FBOs distinguish themselves from the conventional flying process by providing world-class customer service that’s both personal and genuinely helpful. Because FBOs are far less busy, customer service representatives can take the time to help customers resolve their concerns and fulfill their needs.
The entire FBO experience is designed to create a luxurious experience for the passenger. Though commercial airports provide lounges with premium amenities, the FBO amenities are more private and are often superior to public airports, which is why so many choose to fly through FBOs. Waiting areas are often designed with high-end and modern finishes and furnished with comfortable seating and functional workspaces. Conference and private meeting rooms are also often available for business travelers.
Passengers are typically greeted with refreshments and snacks or full dining options. Some FBOs also have entertainment areas and other amenities that help passengers relax as they await their flights.
Fast Boarding and Check-ins
When it comes to the perks of flying FBO vs. public airports, nothing beats the convenience of the fast check-in and boarding process. FBOs don’t require passengers to undergo the same level of bag searches and security screenings as commercial airports. The check-in process is streamlined and is often done digitally.
Boarding is an efficient process, requiring passengers to show their ID to a crew member while boarding. The entire boarding process takes only a few minutes.
Knowledgageble Flight Crews
Traveling via FBO is a much more personal experience than through a commercial airline. Passengers interact with crew members and pilots in a relaxing atmosphere, making the experience more comfortable for passengers.
Passengers may find that their crews are highly professional and knowledgeable, capable of answering questions and resolving needs immediately. Because flight crews only cater to a handful of people at a time, they can provide next-level service that focuses on the details that make flying enjoyable.
Frequently Asked Questions About FBOs
Airports that are considering adding an FBO or switching FBOs may have questions regarding how FBOs work and how to select the right one. Below are some frequently asked questions that airports have about FBOs.
Who Owns FBOs?
FBOs are almost always private companies owned by one person or operated on a chain or franchise model. An airport authority gives FBOs legal permission to operate on the premises and provide services.
In some cases, as with smaller airports, FBOs are run by the local government or airport authority themselves.
How Do I Choose an FBO?
Airports looking to partner with FBOs should consider multiple factors to make the right decision. FBOs should be able to provide the right range of services needed for the size and location of the airport. The lease partnership should also be fair for both parties, including not limiting exclusivity in case of new competition.
It’s also important to consider the types of FBOs that pilots and charter companies will choose. Charter pilots often seek out FBOs that are capable of handling their aircraft maintenance and servicing needs, while being able to provide the amenities that private flight passengers expect.
How Many FBOs Can a Single Airport Have?
Airports may have a single FBO or multiple different FBOs operating on their premises. The number of FBOs an airport has depends on the different services the FBOs provide, the size of the airport, the level of air traffic it receives, and the land available.
While some airports seek to expand their offerings by adding more FBOs to drive competition and attract more passengers, other airports have downsized and consolidated their FBO offerings into a single FBO operation that can provide more services.
Keep in mind that some FBO companies only operate at private airports and will not establish their businesses at public terminals.
Does My Airport Need an FBO?
Partnering with an FBO can be a smart business decision for airport owners and authorities. FBOs essentially act as extensions of the airport, taking care of the services that relieve these responsibilities from the airport. Since FBOs are specialized service providers, they can be a valuable asset for helping airports run smoothly and remain profitable.
Below are some of the considerations to account for when deciding if an airport needs an FBO:
- Aircraft essentials: The ability to provide aircraft maintenance and servicing is essential to the partnership between an airport and an FBO. Airports need a reliable partner to service, fuel, maintain, and repair aircraft that are using their airport. Ask about the extent of the maintenance services the FBO is capable of providing to ensure it’s a good fit for the normal clientele and aircraft types the airport caters to. If an FBO can take care of aircraft servicing, then it could be a wise move for an airport to pattern with an FBO.
- Additional services: Ask whether the FBO is willing to provide or facilitate the provision of additional services, such as crop dusting, aerial photography, and sightseeing tours. These types of additional services can generate more clientele for the airport and meet certain local needs that the airport is strategically positioned to offer. Consider the needs of the airport and whether an FBO offering these services would be beneficial.
- Experience at similar airports: Airport managers should always keep their pulse on what other locations are offering and how they’re providing services. Consider conducting market research on similarly sized airports in the market and determine the financial viability of those with FBOs. Network with other aviation professionals to get an idea of what types of FBO services are necessary and which ones are not suitable for smaller airports.
Choose VPS for Premium Shade Structures for FBOs
Fixed-base operators are convenient, professional, and highly beneficial operations that help airports grow their clientele and streamline their operations. Choosing the right FBO to partner with can help turn smaller airports into premier destinations for private charter flights and passengers in the luxury market. FBOs open up numerous potential for additional services and revenue streams and can be true allies for airport authorities and small airport operators.
Airport FBOs position themselves as taking care of the small details to make the entire flight experience smooth and hassle-free. Airports that benefit from FBOs cater to their passengers' needs, including maximizing comfort, health, and safety. One way to cater to passenger needs is to ensure the airport has the right infrastructure in place to accommodate passengers. Shade structures help protect passengers from the elements. A shade structure keeps them cool on the tarmac or in outdoor spaces, providing relief from the hot sun.
At VPS, we offer customizable airplane shade structures for the private airport sector that can help shield aircraft from the elements and make loading and disembarkment better.
To learn more about our commercial private airplane shade structures, contact VPS today.