What is an FBOYou might have heard the term ‘FBO’ used to describe the private jet terminal or lounge at the airport. But what does it mean? What should you expect from the FBO experience? And what’s new in the world of FBOs?

What is a FBO?

Departure lounge at advanced aerovision Paris Le BourgetFBO stands for Fixed Base Operator. It refers to the private jet services at an airport. In some cases this will be a small VIP lounge within a general airport terminal. In others, a large purpose-built facility offering a range of services for private jet customers, aircraft and crew.

The term Fixed Base Operator dates back to the days of unregulated civil aviation in the USA in the 1920’s.

Aircraft were relatively inexpensive to come by in these post-war years, with a surplus of ex-military aircraft available. So transient pilots, known as ‘barnstormers’, took advantage by using the aircraft to offer passenger flights, aerobatic displays or airshows for the locals. They would travel all over the USA, landing in farmers’ fields at the edge of town, rather than at airports, and charging whatever the local market would pay for their services.

The transient nature of their jobs and lives meant that a these aviators moved around with the aircraft and had no fixed business location.

Then in 1926 came the US Air Commerce Act. This enforced many new licensing for pilots; and the regulation of aircraft maintenance and training standards. Pilots and mechanics then began establishing registered businesses, at a given fixed address. These were termed Fixed Base Operations or Operators – to distinguish them from the transient aviators of old.

Until comparatively recently the term FBO was applied to the aircraft operator who was based at the airport (and in fact this is still the case at many smaller private jet airports). When a private flight wanted to land at an airfield which was not their home base, they would contact the Fixed Base Operator at the airport, in order to make the practical arrangements for the flight to land there. Initially this was all done in a non-commercial manner.

As the industry has evolved and private jet flight movements became busier, a need arose to create third party organisations to manage facilities for customers and crew at busier airports – such as refueling, security, hangars, lounges, car parking and concierge.

What can I expect from the FBO experience?

Departure lounge at Landmark Paris Le BourgetWhen you book a private jet flight, you will be given the address details of the FBO where you need to go when you arrive at the airport.

Some smaller airports will only have one FBO, but many will have two or more, so you may be given a choice of which to use. Some private jet customers will have a preference for a certain FBO and will specify this.

At the FBO you will usually meet your captain on arrival and be greeted by the reception staff at the desk – if there is one. There will be a place to sit if you are waiting for other passengers, but in many cases the private jet customer will move through the FBO very quickly indeed – in just a few minutes. Many customers are in and out again so quickly that they don’t see much of the FBO at all!

Other customer facilities on offer in most FBOs include wifi access; light refreshments; and bathroom facilities. Larger or more specialised FBOs also offer luxury concierge, conference and hotel rooms for customers who choose to spend more time there; and services for passengers travelling by private jet with babies or young children; or those flying with pets.

Regardless of the size of the FBO, quick and unobtrusive security and immigration checks will be made, in addition to the pre-clearance that has already taken place.

Then you will walk out to board your aircraft if is parked directly outside (it often will be). Or if you are flying in a larger private jet aircraft, you may have a short ride in a courtesy vehicle to the main airport ramp.

To take a tour of a FBO, here’s a video I made at London Stansted’s Inflight:

FBOs also provide a range of services to crew and aircraft including aircraft maintenance; hangars; refueling; de-icing; crew rest areas and crew accommodation.

What’s new in FBOs?

Since the recession our industry has changed in many ways, and the ownership of FBOs has been a particularly noticeable shift. In the 1990’s there were lots of smaller, independent companies running FBOs, now we are now seeing much more consolidation. It’s a competitive field and known brands are now evolving. Signature Flight Support is the biggest name, with over 100 locations worldwide. Landmark Aviation is another big player, with over 50 FBOs under its management.

But it’s not always a case of bigger means better. Each FBO will have its own niche. Some look to compete on fuel pricing, others for exceptional VVIP services for royalty, heads of state or other high profile travellers.

Paris Le Bourget, Europe’s busiest private jet airport, has more FBOs than any other airport in the world, offering a choice of eight. London Luton Airport offers a choice of three FBOs, while Teterboro Airport in New York has five.

Other airports are busy opening FBOs for the first time to business and private aviation customers. St. Kitts’ Robert L. Bradshaw International Airport will officially open its first FBO in December, looking to compete with neighbours St Maarten and St Barts for a share of the Caribbean’s busy private aviation market. And Queenstown Airport in New Zealand is also building its first FBO, due to open in March 2014.