FBOs doing more than just gassing up planes

“We always try our best to market Bellingham because that next jet might be carrying executives who could bring 500 jobs here.”

Harlow Friday, Linda Marrom, Linda Knutzen and Fred Knutzen, all of Bellingham Aero, say the airport’s fixed-base operators can help provide travel solutions for local business owners and help promote economic development in Whatcom County.

   Since taking over the fixed-based operator (FBO) services at Bellingham International Airport in 2002, Bellingham Aero and Bellingham Aviation Services have proven to provide more than just typical fueling, pilot training and maintenance services.
    In growing their businesses, say officials at the two competing companies, they’ve also discovered opportunities for providing travel solutions for local business owners and helping promote economic development in Whatcom County.
    Oftentimes, when business officials arrive, said Bellingham Aero marketing director Linda Marrom, it’s the job of the FBO to find these people hotels, meeting spaces, restaurants or rental cars. In that regard, their stops in Bellingham are creating business for local establishments.
    “We always try our best to market Bellingham because that next jet might be carrying executives who could bring 500 jobs here,” said BAS director Jeff Geer.
    Of the thousands of aircraft the FBOs serve each year, company officials estimate at least 60 percent are of the corporate variety. And many times, those planes are coming to Bellingham for more than just fueling, maintenance or avionics services, or taking advantage of the airport’s Customs services.
    Because of the large number of franchises and major corporations with Whatcom County or British Columbia locations, corporate executives are frequently flying into Bellingham. There are also a large number of business people who come to learn more about potentially doing business in the area or with existing companies.
    “We’re the first point of contact in Bellingham, so we have to provide a good service,” said Geer.
    And while the officials are in their meetings, said Bellingham Aero general manager Harlow Friday, the FBOs point the pilots and crew members of the executive jets to destinations around town like the Whatcom Museum or Outdoor Sculpture Collection at Western Washington University.
    Providing good customer service, he said, can help build the reputation of not only the FBOs but also the community.
    “There are only about 250,000 airplanes in the United States, including military and airlines. When you think about how few airplanes there really are, you realize it’s a pretty small community,” Friday said. “If you do a bad job, the word gets around, but if you do a good job the word also gets around.”
    Having a reputation as an accommodating destination may pay off in the future, Friday said, as more companies choose to travel in corporate jets rather than commercial airliners.
    One trend in the aviation world, he said, is fractional ownership of corporate jets, with several different companies utilizing the same plane.
    “These jets have become the yachts of this century,” Friday said.
    In addition to serving as a welcoming committee to newcomers and executives, and directing business to others in town, the FBOs also provide services that benefit local businesses.
    For example, Friday said, Bellingham Aero operates a regional air taxi service that many business owners and construction workers will take to meetings or job sites in the San Juan Islands, as a quicker alternative to the state ferry system.
    Also, both FBOs offer pilot-training courses, something that can come in handy for business owners who frequently travel around the state.
    It’s not uncommon, Friday said, for business owners and companies to have small planes at the airport they use for business travel. One company Friday cited as an example is Tek Construction, which recently moved its headquarters to the airport to be closer to its planes.
    While officials with the two FBOs say there are some issues that need to be addressed in the future — such as possibly finding a new spot at the airport for one of the FBOs so they aren’t located right next to each other, and creating more hangar space so more business owners can have planes at the airport — their operations are going well.
    After a series of failed FBOs at the airport, Bellingham Aero and Bellingham Aviation Services officials believe their mix of services, combined with additional changes at the airport, will allow them to be a stable presence.
    “Since we opened our doors here, it’s seemed like a vacuum has been sucking people in,” said Bellingham Aero owner Fred Knutzen.


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