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Well Grounded

Published: 30/08/2018 - Filed under: Home » Archive » 2018 | 2017 | 2016 » September 2018 » Special Reports » Home » Features » Home »

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Once upon a time, not terribly long ago, general aviation terminals were, at best, functional and friendly. The coffee pot behind the counter was always on and the Naugahyde furniture squeakily comfortable. General aviation airports are home to fixed base operators, those providers of essential services like fuel, aircraft parking and maintenance catering to business and private aircraft.  They were ready to fuel you up, fix a few “squawks” (problems) and get you on your way again.

Fast forward to the present and things are decidedly different. Today’s new crop of business jet terminals are ‘brass and glass’ enclaves, ever more dramatic oases in the fast-paced, high-flying private jet world that for an increasing number of corporations is a significant feature of business travel today.

With increasing frequency businesses need to put their people in places off the route maps of commercial airlines. “The US has about 5,000 public use airports,” says Dan Hubbard, senior vice president of communications for the National Business Aviation Association. “Of those, about ten percent – or 500 – have some service by the airlines. General aviation can use nearly all 5,000 of those. Business aviation is a part of that.”

Tim Obitts refines the numbers further. The executive vice president of the National Air Transportation Association, an industry trade group that represents general aviation interests including FBOs, says 3,537 of those public use airports sport paved runways that are 3,000 feet or longer. Some 3,384 FBOs serve these general and business aviation fields.

Those fields are fertile these days. Look around the country and you’ll see FBOs at work erecting striking business aviation facilities that are anything but frivolous – despite their elegance. 


First Impressions

Hardheaded facts of economic live drive the rush to construct new business aviation terminals. “Starting back in the early 1990s there was a desire by local authorities, by airports, to create a minimum standard [for FBO facilities],” says Obitts. 

Terminals, in essence, “would be a showcase, a first impression for the business traveler coming into the community,” a lens through which business guests, like venture capitalists and companies on the lookout for new economic opportunities, view the city. Airports “want to make a good impression to make sure they come back,” he says.

FBOs serve two audiences: passengers and pilots. Facilities have to appeal to both. The passengers’ corporation may be paying the ultimate bill, but it’s pilots who get them there and back safely. 

“I’ve heard [of] FBOs spending up to  $30 million for their facilities,” says Andrew Perry, executive director of Houston Executive Airport, a bizjet mecca for the Bayou City located 28 miles west of downtown. “They’re spending that kind of money to service passengers and crews.”

BusinessJetCenter, an FBO at archrival Dallas Love Field, has with executive conference rooms and a special events room. Cat Clay, manager of sales and marketing, says there’s even a bucket of canine treats and an appropriate grass patch for four-legged fliers. 

But passenger pampering can go well beyond C-suite conference rooms and doggy comfort stations. “I had an aircraft call us inbound one time,” remembers Betsy Wines, vice president of customer service and human resources at Meridian’s Teterboro, NJ, FBO. “The boss had forgotten his tennis stuff. He wanted to play tennis while he was here.” The inbound business jet called Meridian and said, “’We need sneakers this size, shorts this size.’ They needed to be a particular brand. We went out and got them for him before they landed.”

One of the most important passenger needs is an arrivals canopy to ward off sun and rain. In fact, canopies have become the hallmark of an increasing number of FBO terminals. 

BusinessJetCenter’s can accommodate a Gulfstream G-450.  Henricksen Jet Center boasts what Perry labels “the world’s largest arrivals canopy. Houston is a hot place, especially in the summer.” Passengers and crew are in the shade when they arrive or depart. The Henricksen canopy is commodious enough to shelter an MD-87 and a pair of Gulfstream G-650s side by side at the same time.

Amenities notwithstanding, corporate business jet travel is predicated on speed. “In reality, passengers shouldn’t spend much time in our terminal,” says Wines, “They expect to arrive curbside or planeside, to be able to move quickly, either from the car to the plane or the plane to the car.” 

At Meridian Teterboro, she adds, “For most of our passengers who are traveling through it’s the bare essentials – being able to walk through a well-maintained facility, get to their car quickly, use a clean restroom, have a cup of coffee and maybe grab a bottle of water.”  Many of Meridian’s business travelers are bound for Manhattan, 12 miles distance from the New Jersey FBO. 

Across Country, Across Oceans 

TEB is the East Coast anchor for bicoastal business jet travel; Van Nuys (VNY), located in the LA Basin, is the West Coast linchpin. 

Bicoastal business itineraries often start or end up at one of these airports. So too international trips, which are made possible by a new breed of large cabin, long range jets such as the Bombardier Global Express. It sports a nonstop range of 7,077 miles. The rival Gulfstream G650 can fly 8,053 miles without having to refuel. Both these rapier-like time machines are making both TEB and VNY in-demand connecting points

Van Nuys boasts an 8,001-foot runway capable of launching the right kind of bizjet to Asia. Teterboro’s main 7,000-foot strip can handle nonstop European and Latin American flights.

As the “legs” get longer and the aircraft larger, it’s affecting the way FBOs design their facilities. At Van Nuys “we’re seeing larger cabin-class airplanes,” says Curt Castagna, president and CEO of Aeroplex/Aerolease Group, which just finished an $8-million, 50,000-square-foot facility at the airport. “It’s impacting airport facility design.” Hangar size is directly influenced. The norm used to be 10,000 square feet. Now, he says 40,000 square feet is “not uncommon.”

The passenger environs of terminals are also affected. Castagna says the impact is comparable to what’s happening at commercial airports “that are designing their facilities for the A380, the Dreamliner and the 777.  You’re seeing the same sort of reaction at the larger general aviation airports.” 

Privacy Please

One of the prime selling points of business aircraft is that they provide airborne privacy, a place where candid conversation about, say, a classified business deal can be held without fear of being overheard. “The clientele based in the [Long Beach] facilities are either-high-end investors or private individuals,” Castagna says.  “We cater to lots of people in the movie industry. Those folks want privacy and security. That’s the number one consideration for them: They want a facility that provides protection.”

Curt Castagna says his company listened to the clientele when it designed the new Van Nuys enclave. Conference rooms, security systems, access control systems – “we’re building them in.”


Proper Airports

In large cities small airports dominate the corporate aviation skyscape. “At the largest US hubs, general aviation is always a single percentage user,” says NBAA’s Dan Hubbard. “Because the airline presence is so pronounced that general aviation aircraft have every incentive to use smaller and secondary airports.”

Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International, the world’s busiest airport, is a classic case-in-point. Business jets favor DeKalb-Peachtree Airport (PDK), just northeast of town and a 15 minute drive from upscale Midtown and Buckhead – assuming Atlanta’s notoriously bolloxed ground traffic cooperates. After ATL, PDK is the state of Georgia’s second-busiest airport.

On the west side of the city lies Fulton County Airport (FTY), known to locals as Charlie Brown Field. It’s located near the juncture of Interstates 20 and 285. 

Likewise Chicago O’Hare International, the world’s second busiest airport, isn’t favored by business aircraft. As with Atlanta, ORD has a couple of so-called “reliever” airports, business jet sanctuaries.

The larger of the two is DuPage Airport, located in West Chicago, IL. With a main runway stretching some 7,570 feet, DPA can handle just about any aircraft. The airport features a $10-million terminal and a $14-million Robert Trent Jones, Jr. golf course. Chicago Executive Airport (PWK) is 18 miles northwest of Chicago in Cook County. It too is a mecca for business aircraft. Its main 5,001-foot runway is capable of handling jets up to the 20-seat range.

These are “pure” business and general aviation airports. They are located in or near major cities with lots of commercial airline service at major airports. That said, some big city airports co-exist nicely with general aviation, especially the turbine-powered jet variety. One of them is Dallas Love Field.

Commercially, Southwest Airlines flat out dominates DAL. It’s the headquarters and ancestral home of the low-fare juggernaut. Located a mere six miles north of downtown Dallas, DAL is favored by commercial and bizjet fliers alike. 

Because commercial traffic at DAL has effectively been capped by an agreement limiting the number of gates at the commercial terminal, Love Field-bound travelers aboard business aircraft aren’t beset by the sort of local air traffic delays that impact other airports of its size and city-center proximity.


The Signature Effect

Seattle’s Boeing Field (BFI) lies five miles south of downtown Seattle and at the epicenter of aviation history. Recently, Signature Flight Support opened a ‘glass and brass’ FBO at the airport, one of 200-plus FBOs it has worldwide. 

Signature’s influence on the fixed base operations industry is seminal. The mass transformation of FBOs began in the early 1990s, contends NATA’s Tim Obitts,  when Signature introduced concierge and VIP status to the once stolid, prosaic world of business aircraft travel.

Obitts believes this set off a chain reaction, not just with other ground-bound FBOs but with manufacturers of business aviation aircraft as well. “There was more demand for the manufacturers to have WiFi, larger cabins and more amenities to match what they were receiving on the front end (departure) and back end (arrivals)” of the trip.

In a pattern that Obitts says was manifested by “beautiful facilities,” waiting limos, refreshments, restaurant recommendations, “whatever they might want,” Signature’s success “created this (high-end) environment and others started following suit.”

The coffee pot is still around, but now it holds custom-ground brews. The furniture is still there in the waiting room. But it’s not Naugahyde. Not any more.

Jerome Greer Chandler

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