Independent FBOs are rare in an industry where consolidation, building and buyouts are the norm. An independent FBO, owned by a company with no other interests in the sector, is perhaps even rarer.
Illinois-based AAR is a global aviation powerhouse, specialising in component supply and MRO, particularly for airline and military operators, as well as delivering airlift and search and rescue services with a fleet of helicopters and fixed-wing transports. It also owns and operates a Phillips 66 Aviation-branded FBO at Oklahoma City’s Will Rogers World Airport, a somewhat unexpected jewel in a vast aviation crown.
Chip Smith, Director Line Services/Facilities, AAR Aircraft Services FBO, says the OKC facility has been in AAR’s portfolio for 47 years, after it was purchased from a company called Air Craftsmen in 1971. “At one time, AAR owned three FBOs, but the Oklahoma City station is the only survivor. It’s a full-service facility operating 24/7/365 and provides services ranging from refuelling and defuelling, through line maintenance, to catering, to both private and airline customers.
“If required, customers also have access to AAR’s MRO facility, collocated at Will Rogers, including oxygen and nitrogen service; wheel assembly replacement; strut services and component replacement. We also have base customers that we hangar on a monthly basis, with executive jets ranging from a Phenom up to a Gulfstream.”
Regardless of branding or ownership, the best FBO staff combine service industry experience, customer service excellence and aviation passion in equal measure and Smith is certain AAR Oklahoma has people as good as the very best. “Myself and my colleagues are a committed group. My head customer service rep has been here more than 35 years. And there’s a group of five or six of us that have worked here for over 30 years –we’re passionate about what we do.
“I came to work for AAR after graduating high school. I’d always liked aviation and while attending the University of Oklahoma, I applied and was hired – I’ve been here ever since. I’ve learned the business from the ground up and I’ve spent most of my time at AAR on the line in the FBO.”
Service & Safety First
AAR Oklahoma’s modest webpage makes no mention of the standards or associations so commonly accepted in the industry as marks of quality; there’s no Wyvern or IS-BAH certification, for example, yet the FBO’s safety, service and training standards are exceptionally high and it’s regularly audited for safety and service quality.
“Training is an ongoing process,” Smith says. “We follow NATA [National Air Transportation Association] service standards, under a programme called Safety First. Our staff receive training tailored to each airline customers’ specific safety protocols. Phillips 66, our fuel provider, also provides training, teaching our people how to handle and fuel aircraft, and instructing them in customer service. In addition, we have two employees whose job it is to ensure we’re meeting training protocols. We’re an ISO member and audited on average twice a month, but mainly it’s the airlines that audit us.
“We’ve always had a good relationship with Phillips 66. We’re a Phillips dealer and Phillips 66 has a lot of advantages. They’re a name brand, they advertise in the trade journals and they have various contract fuel programmes. Plus, they’re easy to work with and they do a lot of good things for us.
We’re a Phillips dealer and Phillips 66 has a lot of advantages. Plus, they’re easy to work with and they do a lot of good things for us
“We take pride in our customer service, which is the most important quality in the FBO business. When an aircraft pulls up, we’re representing not only AAR but also Oklahoma City. We train our people to be polite and friendly, know what they’re doing, be positive and never say ‘No’ to a request. We think we can do just about anything and do it well, while our independence allows us to tailor our services to meet customers’ needs.”
As an example of AAR Oklahoma’s tailored service, Smith says it sources its catering from a regular vendor, but also has access to five upscale restaurants in Oklahoma City. “Our customers generally know what they want ahead of time and the typical turnaround is 12 hours from order to service. But if something comes up, we can usually get it here in an hour, maybe 90 minutes. We can cater for just about anything – we hardly ever turn a request down.”
Rare for its independence, AAR Oklahoma also attracts an unusual, yet regular client set. Thanks to the Oklahoma City Thunder squad, it’s a favourite with National Basketball Association (NBA) teams and, inevitably, regularly attracts fan and media attention. Smith confirms: “Every visiting NBA team comes in through here. We take care of the Thunder in Oklahoma City and have always had a great relationship with them. I work with their director of basketball operations. If he has a request, he goes through me.
“There’s a group of Thunder fans that likes to greet the team upon their arrival. It could be 3 o’clock in the morning and they’ll still be standing out there. We have a designated place that we light for them. The Thunder players are aware they’re there, and they’ll wave or go over and greet them. We also get a lot of media and we help them out as best we can.”
Less predictable even than the media, Oklahoma City experiences a full range of severe weather, including high winds, tornadoes, ice and snow storms, plus extreme summer heat. “We watch that weather every day and even have tornadoes in November,” Smith notes. “Pilots are usually on top of the weather and leave before a storm arrives. But we have a protocol for severe weather. If passengers are here, we have a specific area we take them to and if anything does come up, we keep everybody informed.”
Six year ago, AAR unveiled a new, 6,000sqft state-of-the-art FBO facility at Will Rogers, capable of handling more than 10,000 flight operations per annum. It represented a significant investment for a global company with only one FBO and Smith reckons it signals AAR’s long-term commitment to provide Oklahoma City’s visitors with superior service, even though other FBO provision is now available at the airport.
“We were the only FBO here for 45 years, and although we have competition now, we’ve been independent since 1971 and I think that’s how we’ll remain. We provide great services, we’re proud of what we do and we’re going to stay on top.”