Tom Willis takes a whistle-stop tour around a selection of Europe’s top FBOs, discovering what they offer and what gives each its unique character.
Fixed base operators (FBOs) – commercial organisations permitted to operate on an airport’s grounds – aim to deliver top-of-the-line service for business and private travellers, while variously offering additional aircraft and airside services including refuelling, private taxis and minor maintenance. Many of Europe’s FBOs appear similar at first glance, but each has something different to offer, as this sample reveals.
Geneva Airpark is marketed as a ‘Five-Star Residence for Your Jet’. Sophie Mabire, Geneva Airpark General Manager, notes that the five-star aircraft service begins as machines are towed into the FBO’s hangar. It occupies 10,000m2 of the Airpark’s 15,000m2 of cark parking, apron and hangar floor space.
The Airpark’s offer includes a dedicated aircraft laundry, refuelling and bathroom services, as well as interior and exterior cleaning. The focus is on quality and customer service, exemplified by the allocation of dedicated cleaning staff to particular aircraft. Mabire says: “If we outsourced the cleaning we’d lose the benefit of our dedicated in-house team.”
The Airpark’s customers travel for business and holidays – Geneva has access to many ski resorts. Several customers have contracts with the Airpark, although Mabire emphasises that the Airpark has no direct contact with the end user – everything is organised and prepared pre-arrival, leaving the customer to fly on at their leisure.
Geneva Airpark has no maintenance mandate, leaving such work to co-located TAG and Jet Aviation. Mabire says customers actually comment favourably on the Airpark because it doesn’t resemble a maintenance hangar.
London is well served by FBOs, notably including two at Biggin Hill Airport – Signature Flight Support (SFS) and BHA Executive Handling. Andy Patsalides, Marketing Manager at BHA Executive says the result isn’t ‘fiercely competitive’, noting Signature Flight Support’s presence as ‘complementary’. “Having them on site helps us tap into the significant network of clients using SFS facilities elsewhere.”
Patsalides describes Biggin as “…the only dedicated business aviation airport actually located in the capital. It’s a designated UK Port of Entry with no runway spots. We pride ourselves on offering the fastest ‘touchdown to downtown’ of any London airport.”
BHA manages more than 20 hangars at Biggin Hill, with another 60,000ft2 facility under construction. It will be sufficient to house six G650s, while larger aircraft, typically BBJs and ACJs, are also regulars at Biggin. An on-site Flight Kitchen serves the catering needs of visiting aircraft, while fuel and other standard services are inevitably also offered.
Patsalides notes the recent completion of a major new investment in Biggin from HSBC. “It enables us to fulfil the next stage of our development strategy for further enhancing Biggin Hill’s reputation as the business aviation gateway to London and the City. Building on the success of the HSBC deal, we’re also introducing extended operating hours in the coming weeks.”
Reportedly worth £15 million, the finance package will help fund construction of a 140,000ft2 office alongside the new hangar and business aircraft parking facility. It also funds construction of a four-star hotel, aiming to meet the steady growth in demand for the FBO’s services.
Milano Linate Prime For SEA Prime, the company managing Milano Linate Prime, aircraft maintenance has recently taken on a new importance after the announcement of a partnership with Bombardier for line maintenance. It marks a strategic move from Bombardier to re-establish itself in Italy and increase awareness of its MRO services in Europe. Milano Linate Prime General Manager Chiara Dorigotti says the partnership will help drive traffic to the airport, increasing Linate’s attraction to aircraft operators.
The partnership is just one component of the facility’s five-year business plan, under which Dorigotti says the FBO is targeting investment and looking to establish another long-term hangar facility.
Brandon O’Reilly, CEO of TAG’s Farnborough Airport FBO says: “TAG Farnborough Airport offers a complete portfolio of services dedicated to delivering a seamless customer experience. Based 40 miles from central London, we’re the UK’s only dedicated business aviation airport.
“We’ve repeatedly been ranked as the best FBO in Europe – in April 2017, we placed first in the Aviation International News FBO Survey 2017 (Europe, Middle East, Africa and Asia Pacific category) for the 11th year in a row. The airport is certified to the International Standard for Business Aircraft Handling [IS-BAH], a global code of best safety practices managed by the International Business Aviation Council [IBAC].”
TAG Farnborough’s offering includes fast-track entrance to the airport for customers and crew, direct ramp access, the Aviator luxury hotel close to the site, in-house catering delivered through Absolute Taste, 240,000ft2 of heated hangar space and 24/7 cleaning and engineering services.
O’Reilly says TAG has invested more than £200 million transforming what was once a military flight test airfield into the current airport. “In response to an emerging demand for higher-volume flights, we’ve now invested an additional £1 million to create more space for passengers and crew. A new lounge accommodates up to 80 passengers, while also offering privacy and comfort to individuals or small groups.”
As the business aviation market grows, O’Reilly believes TAG Farnborough is well equipped to take traffic from congested airports. “Shifting business aviation traffic from commercial airports to dedicated business aviation airports could also benefit the community and the environment,” he reckons.
Stobart Executive Handling owns and operates both Southend Airport and its FBO. “We do everything,” says Glyn Jones, CEO of Stobart Executive Handling. The overlap in services between the commercial airport and FBO is complementary, he says, with all the FBO’s services, from ground handling, through catering to fuelling, provided in-house.
Stobart also owns a sizeable hotel close to the airport, helping the FBO offer a more complete, comfortable package. Ultimately, making such extensive use of in-house staff enables Southend to offer the best rates in the UK, according to Jones. The airport also boasts ‘very big’ hangars, capable of housing large business jets.
Although it’s located 40 miles from London, Southend enjoys good transport links. Jones says the rail service into London is among the best of any London FBO, while a helicopter shuttle into the city takes just 15 minutes.
Jones admits that customer awareness is a major challenge. International business aviation users are unlikely to recognise Southend as they might Gatwick, Luton or Heathrow. Marketing efforts are underway to raise the FBO’s profile, while Jones says partners in the Middle East, US and Russia are also being sought.
He’s confident that Southend will take 10% of the market share of the other London FBOs as it expands and improves over the next five years.Bern
Situated in central Switzerland, Bern Airport serves the capital, Berne. Bern’s FBO specialises in rapid, slot-free arrivals and departures, claiming regular 10-minute departures from car to jet and five-minute arrivals in the opposite direction. Crew rest, catering and refuelling services are available, while the FBO also houses customs and border facilities, and helicopter transfers can be had from local operators. Catering is by Henris Inflight Catering, which offers a large selection of first-class menus and appetisers, produced at the airport using fresh, regional products.
Thanks to its 1,730m runway, Bern can accommodate aircraft as large as an Airbus ACJ320 or 737-based BBJ. As a regional airport, Bern serves approximately 180,000 passengers annually, its ‘VIP terminal’ accommodating all passengers with personalised, friendly service. Business passenger security and privacy is guaranteed by dedicated agents, as well as by having customs and border guards in situ.
All services offered at Bern Airport are combined, so that the scheduled and business aviation services are complementary, thanks to excellent infrastructure and the terminal’s compact, clear design, and efficiency. The latter is exemplified by the ready availability of unbooked slots, even during winter; the availability of Schengen and Non-Schengen arrivals at all times; and short onward distances to major cities, business areas and tourist attractions. Travelling by car, Interlaken and Grindelwald are within 45 minutes; Lausanne, Lucerne, Montreux and Vevey are reached in 75-80 minutes; and Geneva and Verbier are 105-115 minutes away.
As with Southend, the major challenge for Bern is visibility and the management is keen to promote its offering, especially the no-slots policy and fine geographical position for onward travel.