Group Chief Executive of BBA Aviation and CEO of Signature Flight Support since April 2018, Mark Johnstone runs a growing global network of 200 FBOs. While Signature’s largest presence is in North America, it also boasts important facilities in the Caribbean, Latin America, Europe, Africa and Asia. He considers that network a clear differentiator between Signature Flight Support and its competitors.
“We have 139 locations in North America, the next largest FBO operator has 70,” he explains. “Access to the financial resources of its parent company, BBA Aviation, also allows Signature to be innovative, and to invest in technology, facility upgrades, additional acquisitions and training. Our global network is therefore the greatest asset we have. And customers expect a premium experience when they land at a Signature Flight Support FBO, so we expect all our team members to be ready to provide that experience in a world-class manner and with an exceptional focus on safety.”
So important is safety to Signature Flight Support’s offering that it has developed proprietary safety and service training modules. “Our Service with a Leading Edge programme was developed in coordination with a highly-renowned five-star hotel chain. All employees, from the CEO to a new line service technician, are required to take this training both initially and in subsequent refresher courses. We look very closely at our customer surveys to spot service deviations and quickly respond not only to the customer but also to correct the deficiency at the location with additional training.
“Safety with a Leading Edge has evolved over time from our SafetyFirst programme, which has since been donated to and is now provided by NATA – it’s available to all FBOs. We’ve further defined our safety standards and we hold one another accountable for our service and safety standards; we instil these beliefs from day one of an employee’s time with us.”
Signature’s proactive pursuit of the global IS-BAH standard is a further demonstration of its commitment to safety and its willingness to partner with the business and general aviation industry to identify and implement best practices. “We also have exacting internal audit and safety management systems that adhere to the best practices in the FBO industry and are continuously updated.”
Safety and exceptional customer service are the foundations upon which Signature stands but ask any other FBO operator what they offer, and the response will likely be similar. But, Johnstone insists, “Signature is uniquely positioned to provide personalised, world-class service to each and every customer no matter the size of the location or the number of competitors on the field. We invest heavily in our facilities and training to be able to provide that premium customer experience. We feel this is a differentiator. The size of the network also allows us to really get to know our customers and we’re able to transmit customer needs and wants to other bases, adding additional value to the experience.”
Given its overseas footprint, Signature is obviously a company of international significance, yet each of its FBOs also seems to play an important role in its local community. It’s a peculiar counterpoint to supporting VIP customers, but Johnstone considers Signature’s community presence essential.
“Each of Signature’s locations is tied to its community, with employees volunteering locally and dedicating time and money to ensure their community is thriving. The more communities we become a part of, the more our larger Signature community will grow. And I don’t see this element being lost or diluted as our own grows – I foresee even more engagement as we expand.”
Last year, in the wake of Hurricanes Maria and Irma from August through September and into October, Signature FBOs played an important role in receiving and fuelling military and civilian relief flights. A far cry from handling VIP clients, it says much for Signature’s ability to keep delivering even when the going gets tough.
Johnstone reckons the effort was entirely typical of Signature’s employees. “At our location in Key West, for example, our people worked through the night to ensure the location would be able to receive supplies and relief workers after Irma made landfall. In fact, our teams coordinated transport of a generator from Texas to Key West to allow the airport to restart operations quickly after the storm passed.
“And at Signature Austin, employees marshalled, fuelled, and loaded more than 25 small aircraft so that pilots could bring school supplies to children across the state after Hurricane Harvey.
“During the fires in the Santa Barbara area last year, our employees ensured aerial firefighters had everything they needed to save the area from further destruction. Responding to the needs of the local community, no matter what those needs may be, is just business as usual.”
Beyond FBOs, Signature also has an MRO company, Signature TECHNICAir, positioned at 17 airport locations throughout its network. And there’s more to this aspect of its capability, as Johnstone relates: “We’re expanding our Mobile Service Units across the network to provide AOG and light maintenance support. Our team is highly experienced and we’re going to continue driving this business forward. Where we don’t have a physical presence or Mobile Service Unit, we carefully select MRO partners to support our customers.
“With the majority of business aircraft operating in North America, it’s natural that our network is most expansive in that region, but the UK is also an important market and includes a Signature TECHNICAir presence at Biggin Hill and Bournemouth, supporting aircraft in Europe. We can support all our UK locations with Mobile Service Units and have a significant physical presence in Bournemouth, which offers a portfolio of services from simple AOG, to heavy maintenance and inspections.
“We’re also equity partners in Gama Aviation Signature Aircraft Management, providing management and charter for more than 200 aircraft.”
Mark Johnstone took over as Signature Flight Support CEO in April, at which time he saw that the aviation workforce shortage was going to be among the first challenges he faced. “The aviation industry is evolving rapidly, and we must evolve with it. We need to reach out to new job pools to fill the roles we currently have and find the many more dedicated individuals we’ll need to meet the demands of a changing world. Right now, the future of aviation is bright and full of possibilities as the older workforce begins to retire and provides vast opportunities for those searching for a career in aviation.
“One of the areas we are focusing on is investment in promoting the education of the next generation of aviation professionals. BBA Aviation is dedicated to being an exceptional corporate citizen. Since 2010, we’ve donated over US$1.6 million to non-profits that focus on STEM and aviation education. The aviation workforce has to grow, and it needs to grow in new directions. We’re going to need people with a diverse set of skills to meet future challenges, whether they be in automation, from a desire to improve the environment, or to facilitate an increase in aviation traffic.
“I’d like to see these efforts start at high school level, encouraging young students to get interested in STEM fields, providing internships and externships so that young people can see the benefits of an aviation career. We’re also key supporters of the Aviation Community Foundation which seeks to empower the next generation through aviation education. And we offer educational support programmes to our employees, helping them further progress their education should they so desire.”
Still though, aviation is failing to reach the majority of the female population with its employment possibilities, a situation far from lost on Johnstone. Navigating through its website, it’s noticeable that more than usual of Signature Flight Support’s corporate images feature women. How does he propose making the industry a more obvious career choice for school-leaving girls and young women?
“We have to start the process at high school level. Women and girls are not choosing aviation as a career because they don’t see women in these roles. Everyone knows about Amelia Earhart, but she was born in 1897. Most people probably can’t name a female pilot. Most people have never been flown by a female pilot. Representation matters. We have to do more to highlight the women who are already at all levels of the aviation workforce, which is what we’re trying to do in a small way by prominently displaying images of women in these roles. We’re facing an aviation workforce shortage and statistics like ‘only 7% of pilots are women’. There is untapped potential there that we as an industry have to do more to realise.”
Ensuring its future viability through an active role in educating and encouraging the future workforce is therefore a key driver for Signature Flight Support’s future, but what does that future look like? “We continue to expand our network outside North America, with new acquisitions and via our licensing product, Signature Select, which provides for independently owned and operated FBOs to become part of the Signature network. They’re supported with sales, marketing, training, back office support and other features and benefits that assist them to be more competitive.
“Indeed, in July we acquired EPIC fuels, which brings 200+ independently owned FBO locations to our network. We’re looking to develop the network further and we’ll continue to evaluate business opportunities where they make sense and are relevant to our customers.”