This article was originally published in Professional Pilot Magazine in the spring of 2000.
The author - Robert Seaman is the President of AvAd Inc. and past Chapter Chair for the CBAA. His expertise in this area is based upon involvement in the operation and management of FBOs and business aircraft operations as well as the line service and FBO training programs that he facilitates.
The ramp of an FBO, regardless of your familiarity or comfort level is a point of high tension. Everything and everyone is in a rush - coming or going - all on a deadline. These moments can be the most critical details of the whole trip. Unfortunately, there are times where the human factor kicks in and things go array. The result can be a simple as a miss (which should be a wake-up call) or as catastrophic as a hit. In the end, equipment and more importantly people can and do become the victims.
Without question, line service technicians are the backbone of the FBO business. They work in all conditions and under constant stress to keep the world of business aviation on time. They are required to master many support functions. Unlike their counterparts from the world of commercial aviation who tend to have dedicated job functions, FBO staff are required to be able to satisfy all the needs of the ramp environment at the same time.
Line Crew/FBO Competency is a discussion that comes up more and more - especially as business aviation grows and with it the demands on its support structure. A survey last year of pilots by Professional Pilot showed that Line Service capability is their biggest concern. FBOs, Fuel Providers, Insurance Underwriters, Professional Associations - everyone seems to agree that there is no other industry or aspect of aviation where people are entrusted with a multiple million dollar corporate asset after getting non-legislated, inconsistent or minimal training.
Most who work in the airside environment, at an FBO, airline or military, will most likely tell you that their training was by learning from someone else - what we now call the "Buddy System" or "Shadowing". With the fast paced action on ramps along with the frequent turnover in staff, "Shadowing" is one of the most efficient ways to learn the job and keep productivity up. The obvious downside to this is a lack of formality and worst of all - taking the mistakes or incorrect procedures and spreading them to the next generation.
FBOs care about customer safety. The problem for some is training always seems to be a bridesmaid. Frequent turnover means that firms train at an expense to their operating profits. But is this really an expense? The numbers speak for themselves. The insurance industry reports that the current cost of repairing a damaged aircraft due to hangar rash is averaging $60,000.00 per incident plus an additional $20,000.00 in costs for loss of use of the aircraft.
Kyle Sparks, Vice President and North American Product Line Manager of AIG Aviation, an international underwriter of commercial and industrial insurance told us "The insurance market is currently increasing deductibles for FBOs - avoid one loss and the training is paid for. We recommend training from the FBO fuel supplier, ground service equipment supplier, insurer and outside safety and loss control service. Training has a direct correlation to the reduction of losses and the reputation of the FBO. FBOs that do not have a bad handling history, usually have a strong training program in place."
The insurance industry made on thing on this issue clear - those FBOs with a good service and incident record will get and keep insurance premiums that are reflective of their achievement. Those who do not will pay directly through increased insurance costs or even refusal for insurance support - effectively putting them out of business.
All FBO Line Service crew are required by federal laws to train on dangerous substance handling - av fuel. Most fuel suppliers provide this training. One thing to note, the liability laws have become such that many supply firms are giving the study material to the FBOs to train with but are not assigning their name or corporate "blessing" to the final certification.
Such programs only cover half the job - they do not look at type specific aircraft, nor do they cover aspects of the line service role such as towing, marshaling, hanger movements, environmental concerns, fire safety and all the other attributes of the job. As a result, the FBO operator conducts business, thinking they have trained their staff when in fact, they have only touched the surface of a much bigger issue.
The Aviation Training Institute (ATI) comes up in conversation on training a great deal. They have developed a very extensive self-study programs that is sold to FBOs. This is a tool that covers all aspects of the line service role in a well produced, easy to follow way. Of particular note, they focus on detailed procedures for service, by each unique make, model and in some cases variations of aircraft. They also set minimums that must be achieved before an employee can proceed to the next step. ATI even goes to helping provide an incident response vehicle and retraining method - a good HR tool.
There are some downside issues to programs like ATI. First, their cost can be a little too much for smaller, independent or non-chain operations. The second is they are generalized and do not necessarily reflect the specific needs of the FBO. Third, being self-study, they lack the personal approach of classroom learning and the interaction that is germane to the line service role. Many sites that acquired these tools have taken to using them as a part of the overall classroom training they provide and make it part of a group of materials developed into an in-house, unique training program. An example of this was given by John Enticknap of Mercury Air Center. "We use the ATI program for initial training. In addition we use the Safety 1st program - better practical tests. We also do our own training programs for customer service, forklift and other special equipment. Our pay and promotion program is directly related to an individual's training and certification."
Tom Zollars is the Vice President for Canada of Piedmont Hawthorne Aviation. His firm uses the same basic tools as Mercury with a small difference - "We have a standard, published Operations Guide that everyone works with. For our formal training, we have a supervisor provide a classroom environment of study along with a period of shadowing for the hands-on experience. We also take the ATI program and modify it to cover the self-issues unique to our operating environment. About $2,000.00 per employee is spent on training and we find it very cost effective. The long-term results of training continue to show for about two years. New employees are not allowed to operate equipment until they have completed the full training and testing."
Mike Ryan, the General Manager of TAC Air in Texarcana reports that "We spend about $1,600.00 per employee on regular training. The cost effectiveness is difficult to evaluate because it is required of all our line service technicians. We can only assume without our training program, (which uses the ATI course and our own internally developed elements) our aircraft towing and refueling incidences would be so high that insurance and repair costs would make any training program cost effective."
Cy Farmer, Regional VP with Signature reports "We spend in the range of 7 figures annually on training. The material we use has been developed internally and incorporates the best of all the programs and operations manuals collected through our various acquisitions. We also constantly review and revise our material to keep it current. Each Signature base has a Training Manager who oversees the computer based material instruction and "shadow" practical learning on the ramp. Training sends a message to our employees that we are committed to them. Training gives them a sense of comfort in their job and we find that if they are comfortable performing the task, the job is done well. With 50 locations, we have over 3,000 movements per day and very few incidents."
NATA received a great deal of attention when they announced a unified testing process for Line Service Competency. Called, Safety 1st, the program provides a single test that is given to all line employees (new ones within 90 days of hire). The goal is to have as many FBOs as possible working to the same system of judgment criteria and therefore provide a uniform level of safety expectations. NATA is publishing the names and locations of the sites involved - providing value and promotional awareness to those who succeed. To maintain credibility, NATA provide a relatively strict set of criteria for FBOs to follow in order to continue being included in the program. Their goal is to increase safety and not administrative hassles, so their program also provides for acceptance of third party test results - providing NATA has reviewed and approved them. This encourages FBOs that have developed their own training/operations policy to see value in the NATA testing and endorsement.
There is a cost for the NATA program. The charges are based on a first-time registration and then a per student processing fee. To date, they report a total of 61 FBOs having participated in this program. The major chains involved are Mercury Air Center, Million Air, Piedmont-Hawthorne, Phillips, Raytheon and Signature.
The Canadian Standards Association (CSA) have taken a similar route by developing a set of working minimums that line service staff must be trained and tested to. This was built with in-put from major fuel providers and so once again, is focused on product delivery issues, theoretical ideals and basic minimum standards. It stops short on actual methodology of how the job should be done.
While the NATA and CSA programs do something to address the issues and provide an element of commonality to the line service role, they fall short because they still do not set out a single or standard training curriculum. In the view of some, this is akin to knowing the questions on an exam before you sit the paper - you study for what you know will be on the test and glance over the rest.
Some FBOs, especially smaller, single base sites, have gone to firms that provide training council and operations services for help. These outside suppliers develop an operations guide and training protocol that covers all required material and is specific to the site and circumstances. It involves creating with management a working guide and then coming on-site to train on the contents and procedures. The cost for such services can be less than some off-the-shelf programs. The FBO gets the basics needed to be able to participate in a testing/certification system like NATA. Also, this is ideal for having the staff as a whole go through an initial training mandate as a unit. Using a consultant means getting a good third party view of what is done, how it should be done and how things might be done better. This approach helps organize the service offering while developing the formal process and documentation procedures transportation and insurance auditors require during a review. On the downside, the FBO does not necessarily retain all the training material on site and therefore must arrange follow-up training sessions with the consulting firm as staff come and go.
On the subject of sources or regulator influence on the rules/regulations or operations directives, the majority asked felt that having the FAA or Transport Canada get involved was not necessary. Kyle Sparks put it best about this when he stated "We in business aviation have historically governed the safety of our industry well above those as regulated by the FAA/TC. We do not feel that government required training programs would provide better training than that which we in the industry will impose upon ourselves." That same sentiment came through loud and clear in the recent combined Canadian Business Aircraft Association (CBAA)/Transport Canada study on Self-Regulation. It showed statistically that business aviation in Canada had a better overall safety record than any other aviation interest or segment.
Many people support the idea of the NBAA and CBAA having a role in either the development of or finding assistance in training program development. Similarly, the International Business Aviation Council (IBAC) is now drafting an operation program to develop business aviation support systems outside of North America. While the final paper is a long way from complete, Don Spruston, Director General of IBAC told us "Business aviation is growing quickly in Europe and South America. The South American business aviation fleet is second only in size to that in North America. To help better service our industry in these markets we are developing a set of working standards and procedures for aviation support providers to work with. We're speaking out for the lack of good international standards and rather than just appear as complainers, we want to give them something that we think they can adopt as the standard. When we are happy with the product we have to offer, we will promote it through ICAO and the joint European Aviation Authorities."
Other things that will start to play a role in influencing FBO training include third party referrals. In keeping with their commitment to customer safety, firms like Air Routing International (AR) now provide a variety of handler, scheduler and operator training and awareness programs. They are starting to ask direct questions of the FBOs they use about capability and more importantly accountability before sending a customer to a site. AR are looking for the sort of operations manual and training provided to the staff, the safety track record and the willingness to go out and learn more.
Another thing to consider is airport authorities and the role they play in managing the safe operation of aviation support services. Most airports have some form of authority representation that is involved in safety oversight and enforcement - especially when it comes to fuel spills. At Toronto's Lester B. Pearson International Airport (YYZ), the airport authority have gone to the time and expense of having a third party consultant come on sight and provide a training overview of how business aviation works, services and procedures and safety considerations. This has left the airside representatives of the authority better prepared to observe and judge how FBOs at their airport are operating. The goal is not so much one of policing as it is mutual understanding and peace of mind from knowing the nuances and environmental issues that may be unique to or different from commercial operations.
The incentives for training would seem to be significant. Better-trained people will be better set to do their jobs. If they do their jobs better, there will be lower incident rates. Lower incident rates will mean lower insurance premiums. Lower incident rates will also translate into better client relations and continued business growth.
The formula for FBO safety success is simple. Start with a commitment to be professional about the business we are all in. Follow this up with an operational guide that everyone can follow day to day and then continue with an established training and testing protocol. The facts are there - those who do this sort of thing are enjoying a safe, well run business during one of the biggest growth periods we have ever seen. Those who are not prepared to do it this way, may miss the boat in any one of several ways.