Where service with a smile still exists
There’s an iconic image from the 1950’s of an automobile gas station attendant busily and happily scurrying around a customer’s car, pumping fuel, washing the windshield, checking the oil. The attendant is sharply dressed in uniform, jaunty cap upon his head and a big smile on his face.
We have to believe this really happened because we see the old images, but it’s hard to comprehend in this self-service world.
Yet as you enter the world of general aviation, one of the surprises you’ll find is that exact kind of service at many of the country’s 5,194 public-use airports, including those approximately one-hundred-eighty international behemoths, where the general aviation side also offers the GA touch. It’s presented to you via the airport FBO, fixed-base operator. This odd moniker comes from the early days of aviation, when barnstormers flew around the country landing anywhere they could. Once a little more regulation came on the scene and airports began to be established, aircraft and pilots could be found at operations that had a ‘fixed base.’
A hallmark of an FBO is service. There’s an aviation legend that the owner of a large FBO once heard about his linemen (those attendants who greet and care for arriving aircraft, à la our 1950s gas station attendant) sitting on a bench and ignoring a customer. The owner flew into that FBO with an ax and busted up the bench, calling the linemen ‘lazy bums.’ Ouch.
Here’s how it works at a typical GA FBO. Customer service representatives may track your flight on Flight Aware or you can radio in that you’re planning to stop at ABC Airport. Although no advance notice is necessary, good FBOs know more notice equates to better service. The FBO customer service representative will alert the linemen of your arrival. One will be patiently awaiting you. He may pull out glowing wands, chocks, and a red carpet (really), and guide you onto the ramp. Crossing his arms above his head, he’ll let you know to stop and shut down your engine. Then here he comes, the red carpet is unfurled. You’re greeted with enthusiasm; you’re offered assistance with your bags or your coat or your dog. You ask for the tanks to be topped off, and, when you ask for directions to the area’s best restaurant, he offers you a car. Yep, a car! Called ‘courtesy cars,’ this other secret surprise of the FBO world is often free to arriving pilots. ‘Just fill ’er up before you return.’
The Real Deal
Morning starts early for Anissa Cruz, customer service representative for Atlas Aviation at Peter O. Knight Airport in Tampa, Florida. A college student, Cruz works three days a week, from seven in the morning to seven at night at this full-service FBO and flight school, beautifully situated on a small island in Tampa Bay. Today Cruz arrives at work in thick fog coming off the bay, and ceilings so low, at 400 feet that no arrivals will be on her Flight Aware screen. There will be time for her to have a second cup of coffee and finish up some schoolwork.
But, hey, this is Florida, and by mid-morning the skies are clearing and her computer is awake. The boss is in, the chief pilot and two CFIs are here, a student awaits a check ride, and the maintenance hangar has been buzzing since daybreak. Lineman, Josh Kidd has greeted two arrivals, checked in returning tenants, and powered up the tug to pull an airplane into the maintenance hangar. Atlas Aviation has one-hundred-fourteen tenant aircraft in nineteen shade hangars, seventy-seven T-hangars, and two fifteen-thousand foot shared hangars. There is a full line of rental aircraft, and it is a Cessna Pilot Center flight training facility.
Atlas Aviation was established in 2002 by entrepreneur, Deric Dymerski after he won the city contract to lease this FBO. Once a career-ladder-climbing manager for the large corporate FBO chains, Landmark and Signature, Dymerski launched off on his own with the support of his wife, Tammy. From 2002 through 2004 Florida experienced its worst hurricane seasons in a century, and then the recession hit hard in 2006. Dymerski attempted to expand with the purchase of another FBO in the area, but that ended badly and nearly put Atlas out of business. You could say they’ve weathered a few storms.
At his side has been, besides Tammy, Dymerski’s general manager, Mike Quinn. Quinn, a scrappy former Army aviation ground and fuel specialist, says a day at Atlas is like a soap opera, ‘As the Beacon Turns,’ referring to the everchanging nature of a typical day at an FBO. He’s on call at all times—as Dymerski gleefully says, it’s Quinn’s phone number on the entrance door, not his—and tasks during his day can include dealing with tenants, monitoring the fuel inventory, overseeing maintenance work, and crunching numbers. “Most people have no idea of the magnitude of running an airport FBO,” he says. “They think it’s like a club where we are playing with our toys. But it’s a huge operation. It’s a complex and interesting job.”
An FBO is a lifeline of sorts for people who haven’t quite figured out their life’s path. In fact, working at an FBO is a good place to figure out what you want to do when you grow up. (Dymerski claims he’s still working on that at age forty-eight.) Chief Pilot Chris Gillispie took the traditional college-to-career path, landing a job at MetLife, but when the junior accountant couldn’t keep his mind off flying, he left to start flight instructing. Next month he leaves Atlas Aviation after seven years to become a first officer for a regional airline. Quinn laments—but not in a sad way—that just last month he lost five employees in two weeks. All went off to pursue careers in various aviation industries, from the airlines to the military or the local sheriff ’s department flying helicopters. “I look for entry-level people who eventually become big ambition people,” he says.
Then there’s Roy Pulliam, line service supervisor, who has been working at Peter O. Knight for more than twenty years. He left once to pursue the opportunity to shoot photos and video for news stations, but came back several years ago. “I love it here. I love the airport. It’s a refuge and Zen place for me,” says Pulliam, who lost his first wife to cancer when he first started working here. “Deric and Mike and Tammy have brought a level of professionalism while keeping it a community and comfortable. Deric truly has studied at the graduate school level of the aviation business. And it shows.”
Day is done
Cruz will close up the office at 7:00 p.m. and the maintenance guys eventually will turn off the lights in Hangar A, content to resume their artistry work tomorrow as aircraft reimaging specialists. Jim Brewer can re-create just about anything out of fiberglass, aluminum, and sheet metal. The sun is setting as a massive cruise ship sails by at the end of a taxiway. “We get some really cool stuff here,” Dymerski admits. A tenant is practicing touch and goes on Runway 22 and another tenant lands and checks himself into his own hangar. Dymerski starts off for the night but gets a call from a contractor working on the server. The computer system is offline. He’ll go back in and attempt to straighten things out, even though he has an hour drive home. Quinn’s phone number may be on the door, but the FBO lease has Dymerski’s name on it.
Julie Summer Walker is senior features editor for AOPA Media. Reprinted from AOPA, all rights reserved