Interacting with the local FBO (Fixed Base Operator) isn’t something you’ll typically learn as part of a standard training curriculum at your local flight school. But yet we depend on FBOs to take advantage of everything we do in aviation – the gateway between the free skies and rest of the world. Learning the ins and outs of “FBO speak”, FBO culture and standard practices will make for a much more enjoyable flying experience and give you the confidence and insight to go new places and try new things.
Part of the challenge of taming the FBO world could very well be that no two FBOs are created equal. This may be a bit of an exaggeration today as mergers and acquisitions have given rise to big chains with predictable service, but there can be subtle nuances even among the same brand. And for sure local practices vary. If this sounds confusing or intimidating, please read on…there is universal language to get you by at any FBO.
Hours of Operation – believe half of what you read and none of what you hear. One of the more challenging aspects of FBO interaction is unlocking the mystery of operating hours. And for all of you bargain fuel price hunters, there’s a strong correlation of low fuel price to unpredictable availability. My advice would be to a) don’t believe what’s published on the website or sign and b) always call to verify that you’ll be able to receive service. The wrong time to figure out real FBO hours is Sunday evening, low on fuel, on the way back home.
Arrivals – call ahead to avoid surprises. You’ll find that most FBOs offer plenty of parking space and can handle about any aircraft that shows up on the ramp; however, most pilots are planners and don’t wish to leave anything to chance. Call ahead to check on any particular service you may need. This can be done via telephone, email or use the published radio frequency to call when you’re about 10 minutes away from the ramp. The busier FBOs will appreciate the advance notice. And if you need to perform a quick turnaround, the call-ahead will ensure the fuel truck is ready upon your arrival.
Parking – take it slow and keep your head on a swivel. The well-staffed FBOs will likely have line personnel (those working on the ramp) to direct you to parking. Once a lineman begins to offer hand signals (more on that shortly) for aircraft maneuvering, trust but verify. The ramp area is full of hidden obstacles and plenty of distractions so confirm what you’re being instructed to do will keep you out of trouble.
If you’re taxing on to an FBO ramp off hours with no personnel, take cues from how other aircraft are parked or positioned and if possible, park into the wind. And if it’s dark, lookout for low fences and other hidden obstacles. Don’t believe an FBO will always have tie-downs or ropes so either call ahead or better yet, invest in a tie-down kit for the back of the airplane.
DO NOT LEAVE YOUR PARKING BRAKE SET. FBOs appreciate the flexibility of being able to move airplanes to more convenient locations or to remote areas if staying for an extended period. And if you’re parking in an area prone to severe weather, you’ll appreciate the FBO taking the liberty of moving your aircraft to a safe location if need be.
LOCK UP because not everyone is honest and your headset, iPad, etc. are valuable. Further, security regulations require your aircraft be properly secured. There are pilots who have been flying for years who have never locked the aircraft, so may want to confirm your key will work and the locking mechanism is fully functional ahead of your trip.
My friend, Jason, FBO Manager of Eastern Cincinnati Aviation at Clermont County Airport, confirms that hand signal communication is a shortcoming of the general aviation community. Such miscommunication can wreak havoc on a crowded ramp. The Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM) dedicates a section to hand signals. This is critically important, often overlooked information. Take time to learn the basic hand signals before going solo to a new FBO.
Ground Transportation – proper planning for ground transportation can make or break a trip. Many FBOs offer “crew” or “courtesy” cars and some even advertise this fact on websites or other FBO listing websites. Courtesy cars are simply vehicles that are loaned free to customers for short amounts of time – like an hour or two, not a 3-day weekend. The custom is to keep the car clean and return it in as good or better condition than you found it with at least as much gas as when you left.
If you require a car for a longer period of time or courtesy cars aren’t available, you can check on the availability of cabs if you’re going to a relatively large city or arrange for a rental car. Many rental car companies have relationships with FBOs that either allow the FBO to rent directly or allow cars to be delivered and dropped off at the FBO. This is not always obvious if using rental car company websites. It may require a call to the FBO or call to the local car rental office. I’ve found that even if a formal relationship doesn’t exist with the FBO, some local offices are happy to drop a car off at your airport location.
And don’t forget about the possibility of a free hotel shuttle.
Fueling – you want to get this one right. To borrow a previously used term, trust but verify. Don’t assume FBO personnel are experts on your type aircraft and don’t trust that fuel orders are always relayed accurately. If you’re not in a position to supervise the refueling of your aircraft, it’s certainly acceptable to make a call to check on the fueling status and of course, perform a thorough preflight and check of the tanks prior to departing.
Self-serve fuel is becoming more readily available and it’s often cheaper and accessible 24 hours per day. For your first self-fueling, I’d recommend getting supervision at your home airport or even observe the local FBO refueling an airplane. You’ll want to know how to position the nozzle, where to stand, and most importantly, where to ground the airplane.
As an aircraft flies through the air, it can accumulate static electricity. If the electricity is not dissipated before fueling, an arc could occur and ignite vapors. To prevent a potential arc, aircraft are electrically bonded to the fueling station/truck and not disconnected until after fueling is complete.
Weather and flight planning – you may not always have internet access. As hard as it may be to believe, high speed internet service is NOT available everywhere. The point here is to have more than one trick in your bag for weather data and/or flight plan filing should your first option not be available. Flight service via telephone could be your only option.
Departing – be mindful and considerate of your surroundings. Not all FBOs or airports allow vehicles to be driven on to a ramp. Always check with personnel before driving your bags directly to the airplane.
Remember that aircraft are loud and kick up a lot of wind which can be damaging to other aircraft and to any open doors. Be sure there is plenty of maneuvering room from where you start and that your taxi path won’t blow items around through an open hangar door.
It’s also courteous to avoid long periods on a crowded ramp or near a building with the engine running and NEVER perform an aircraft run-up in a parking area. Also keep in mind there could be line personnel waiting to dispatch your aircraft from its parking space. After completing that after start check, use gentle applications of power to carefully maneuver the airplane to a location away from people and buildings. Even at towered airports, there is generally a non-movement area that you may maneuver your airplane in without obtaining a clearance to do so. This is usually anywhere on an FBO’s ramp.
PIREPs – help other pilots understand the ins and outs by providing feedback. Any numbers of FBO listing sites or apps allow pilots to leave feedback. We want FBOs to flourish to ensure this vital infrastructure is around and successful for years to come. Help fellow pilots by providing insightful information and be encouraging whenever possible of patronizing your favorite FBOs.
What helpful tips or lessons would you share related to FBOs?