Understanding FBOs, Ground Handlers, Supervisory Agents, and Their Differences
While many North American- and European-based business aircraft operators are accustomed to Fixed-Based Operator (FBO) services, the more common handling standard internationally takes the form of local ground handlers. Depending upon location, these handlers may operate from an office on or off the airport or, in some cases, work out of the main terminal of the airport. When planning any international operation, it’s important to understand ground handling options available at your selected destinations and tech stops.
The following is an overview of what you need to know:
1. What do you define as an "FBO"?
FBOs provide an array of aviation services from fixed infrastructure and facilities on an airport. These facilities may range from crew/passenger lounges, conference areas, and shower/relaxation rooms for crew members, to on-site Customs, Immigration, and Quarantine (CIQ), fuel trucks, and repair/maintenance facilities. Depending on the size and location of an FBO, the array of services may be more or less. The concept of full-service FBOs is most refined in North America and Europe, but excellent FBO facilities are also found in Australia, Brazil, the Middle East, and other regions.
2. What do you define as a ground handler?
A ground handler is usually defined as a company, licensed by the airport, offering many of the services required by General Aviation (GA) during destination and technical stops. These services include anything below the wing but usually also include coordination of above-wing services, as well as 3rd-party support services. A ground handler may or may not have its own facility/infrastructure on the airfield. Often, ground handlers share a government- or airport-owned facility on the field. This facility, however, may also be privately owned. Originally, ground handlers were often commercial airline divisions that also looked after GA. Today, many airport handlers are specialized in GA support with specific business aviation training and Ground Support Equipment (GSE). It’s important to ensure that a ground handler is licensed by the airport and has proper insurance and training in place. Ground handlers should have a license issued by local governmental authorities which requires liability insurance with an amount determined by local authorities. Additionally, and ideally, they should have National Air Transport Association certification. Outside North America, ground handlers (rather than FBOs) are the norm. That’s because at many airports worldwide, there’s just no space on the airfield to accommodate individual FBO facilities.
3. What exactly are "above-" and "below-wing" services?
"Above-wing" services generally include assisting crew/passengers through CIQ process and transporting them from the aircraft to the terminal, or FBO and vice versa. Also included is coordination of other services, such as in-flight catering, local transportation, and hotel accommodations, along with "concierge services" to satisfy assorted crew/passenger needs. Below-wing services comprise such items as aircraft push-back and towing, baggage handling, lav and water services, and fueling coordination, as well as provisioning of GSE equipment, including tow bars, stairs, and ground power units.
4. What’s the status of FBOs outside North America?
FBOs in Europe are somewhat similar to North American FBOs, but they often outsource certain services, such as aviation fuel. Several full-service FBOs have emerged in Asia – including in Hong Kong, Macau, Singapore, and also China. Australian FBO facilities/services are similar in concept to their North American counterparts. North American-style FBOs have also become common in Mexico and can be found on Bermuda, on Aruba and other Caribbean islands, and in Panama and Brazil.
5. Is there a trend toward more FBOs and full-service ground handlers?
The FBO concept – with dedicated airport infrastructure and facilities – is being expanded at key airports around the world where there’s a market and need for those services. We’re also seeing an increase, internationally, in ground handlers that specialize in GA handling as locally-based business aviation fleets expand worldwide.
6. Where do supervisory agents fit into this picture?
At many international locations – especially secondary and remote airports – local ground handlers do not have comprehensive knowledge of GA and associated handling requirements. In such cases, it’s a common practice to reposition a supervisory agent to a location to support local ground handling and coordination of 3rd-party services. While there’s a cost incurred with bringing in a supervisory agent, the payoff includes a smoother and more reliable ground handling service, enhanced safety of operations, minimized language barriers, and credit coordination for aviation fuel and services. You may want to consider a supervisory agent if your destination is a remote or secondary airfield in India or China or even if you’re going to a smaller airport in France, with ground handling managed by a local chamber of commerce.
7. What services does a supervisory agent provide?
A supervisory agent normally coordinates above-the wing services and may also instruct the local ground handler on below-the wing requirements. Supervisory agents deal with language barriers, liaise with government and airport entities, and assist when required with credit arrangements for services.
8. How important is it to vet an FBO, ground handler, or supervisory agent?
It’s recommended to always vet ground handlers, FBOs, and supervisory agents prior to arranging services. You need to ensure that they have appropriate licenses, insurance, and training and that they meet all compliance regulations. These items are especially important when an incident occurs to ensure there is insurance to handle any damages. You’ll also want to consider ground handling costs. Your 3rd-party provider or ground handler should be able to give you a cost estimate in advance of operation. Best practice is to arrange ground handling services through an experienced 3rd-party provider.
9. What are some other tips?
Ensure that your ground handler, FBO, or supervisory agent has a presence on the airport and is capable of offering the needed services. Understand the limitation of services available at the airport and in the country you’re operating to. Service and support options will be more limited at remote and smaller locations.
It’s important to ensure clear communication and confirmation of services needed and that credit arrangements for services, aviation fuel, and airport charges are available. When arranging local handling on your own, ensure you obtain as much information as possible and stay in continuous communication with your chosen local ground handler.
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