For the FBO industry, increased customer flying is the tide that lifts all boats, and for the third consecutive year business aviation in the U.S., Canada, and the Caribbean eclipsed three million flights, according to the Argus Traqpak 2019 annual business aviation review. Activity rose by nearly one percent year-over-year, matching the growth rate from 2018. While the company’s analysts predict that 2020 will see continued positive growth, factors such as the increasing spread of the Covid-19 (Coronavirus) and its effects on global commerce and transport add a layer of uncertainty. “Although we are holding in reserve our FBO industry forecast due to world health and economic landscape uncertainty, for the first six months of 2020 FBO operators should be prepared to weather turbulent times,” said Ron Jackson, co-founder of Aviation Business Strategies Group (ABSG). “The good news is that travel by business aircraft is viewed to be a safer mode of transportation than the commercial airline carriers.” He expects that to translate to an increase in charter flight activity, while Part 91 operators will continue to selectively use their aircraft to conduct important business and commerce.
In its annual FBO Fuel Sales Survey Results, released last month ahead of NBAA’s Schedulers and Dispatchers Conference, ABSG noted that more than half of the FBOs in the U.S. and Canada experienced an increase in fuel sales between 2018 and 2019, with 19 percent reporting a more than 8 percent improvement.
This year’s ABSG fuel sales survey set a new record of economic confidence, with 73 percent of the respondents indicating they believe the economy is headed in the right direction, compared to 61 percent the year before. As a result, three-quarters of them said they anticipated increasing fuel sales in 2020, but that was before the Covid-19-related international travel disruptions.
Worldwide fuel volumes for business and executive aviation had been on a modest growth trend over the past year, according to industry consultant Stephen Dennis, CEO of Aviation Resource Group International. “I think we were continuing this trajectory as we began 2020; however, with the current Covid-19 threats, I believe we will see a significant reduction in transatlantic and trans-Asia activity as we go into Q2 and perhaps even Q3,” he told AIN, adding that once the crisis subsides, he expects a return to that 2-to-3 percent growth rate the industry witnessed after recent events such as the dot-com meltdown at the turn of the century, and the 2008 global recession.
One of the trends reported by many of the FBO operators AIN spoke with this year is that of their based customers upgrading to larger aircraft, pushing hangars to full capacity and beyond in some cases. “The new generation aircraft entering the market are pushing the limits on hangar capacities currently available in terms of age and size,” said Jet Aviation president David Paddock. “We first felt the need to invest in newer, larger hangars in the APAC region, where we tripled our hangar capacity in Singapore in 2014 and still opened a third new hangar in 2018.”
While many locations are investing in new hangars to alleviate those overcapacity situations, others are cautiously waiting for the revision to NFPA 409, the code from the National Fire Protection Association related to aviation hangars, which is expected in 2021. Changes to the code could reduce or eliminate the demands for costly and potentially faulty foam fire suppression units.
With industry awareness of environmental sustainability rapidly growing, FBOs will serve as the vanguard, as the availability of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) slowly increases. After several demonstration events around the U.S. and in Europe, some FBOs have begun to offer the blended fuel. In its survey, ABSG asked FBOs if they would be offering SAF in 2020, and only three percent responded in the affirmative.
“While progress has been made in the past years, the need to accelerate the availability and adoption of SAF in support of climate change is a must if we want to further advance our contribution,” said Paddock, who is also the chairman of the General Aviation Manufacturers Association. “I believe business and general aviation travelers are seeking a solution to not only the environmental impact, which is admittedly small compared to other industries, but also to the optics of the use of business aircraft,” said Douglas Wilson, president of industry consultancy FBO Partners. While substantial SAF flow to the industry might be years away, he sees FBOs also making an environmental impact through carbon offset programs and “greener” infrastructure.
Still, the underlying standard for rating an FBO’s performance is how well it treats its customers. In rankings such as AIN’s annual FBO survey (which you can download at the end of this story), that element factors heavily in the location’s score. “From a service and customer experience standpoint, some truly standout independent FBOs are giving established FBO chains a run for their money in this category,” said Wilson, adding that he sees this driving the chains to redouble their efforts to personalize their service offerings. “Regardless of how this plays out, the ultimate beneficiary is the business and general aviation traveler.”