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October 2006
Customer Service, Comfort, Convenience
By Lisa Hoffmann

Pilots talk to one another. That becomes evident when you search the Internet for recommendations on which Charlotte-area FBO to choose. FBO stands for “fixed-base operation” and is used to describe aviation service providers. Google “FBO Charlotte” and you’ll get a mixed bag of results. Anything from before early 2005 will more than likely reveal comments from dissatisfied customers disgusted with overpriced fuel and under-whelming service. Many recommended that private pilots opt for other nearby airports. But you’ll notice a distinct upturn in the comments made in or after the winter of 2005. Taken from “One of the finest FBOs in the Country… If ever an FBO wanted a role model this is it…Pilot- friendly…Courteous…Always a Pleasure.”

   Yep, pilots talk. And the word is spreading that there’s a new and improved FBO in Charlotte – one backed by a customer service philosophy developed by Kemmons Wilson, founder of Holiday Inn, and enthusiastically carried on by his son, Bob.


Taking Off

Kemmons Wilson flew missions in World War II, including the “Hump,” and had found great success in the Memphis real estate market after the war. Being charged a $2-per-child hotel surcharge (he had five children) while traveling on family vacation motivated him enough to start what eventually became the Holiday Inn chain. As founder and CEO of Holiday Inn, Wilson introduced comfortable and affordable family hotels with amenities that we take for granted today – air conditioning in every room, free parking, ice machines, by-the-room rates, and high cleanliness standards.

Two of Kemmons Wilson’s personal 20 Tips for Success are mounted and framed in the hallway of Wilson Air Center: “Work is the master key that opens the door to all opportunities” and “There are two ways to get to the top of an oak tree. One way is to sit on an acorn and wait. The other way is to climb it.”

Bob Wilson learned to fly sitting on his daddy’s lap and had his pilot’s license before he earned a driver’s license. After spending 30 years in the Tennessee Air National Guard (he retired a lieutenant colonel) he decided he loved flying so much he wanted to make a business out of it. He opened Wilson Air Center in Memphis in 1996, Charlotte in 2004, followed by an FBO at Houston-Hobby just last year. Running the FBOs under his father’s tenets has earned the Memphis facility the number one slot in Aviation International News’ annual survey seven years in a row.

When Wilson got word that Signature Flight Support’s 15-year lease at Charlotte Douglas International Airport was up and that Jerry Orr, the aviation director, was taking bids for a company to manage the FBO, he eagerly submitted a proposal. Fed up with complaints about the service and fuel prices, Orr campaigned to forego a typical lease agreement in favor of hiring a company to manage the operation so that the airport could retain more control. The selection team’s visit to Wilson Air Center in Memphis sealed the deal.

“We really wanted to move towards better customer service at the FBO and it didn’t take us long to see that Wilson puts an unusual focus on customer service,” Orr says. “It jumped right out at us and was clear even as we taxied up to the Memphis terminal.”

In October 2004, Wilson Air signed an annual management agreement with the city of Charlotte that pays Wilson Air $250,000 per year plus an incentive, based on profitability of the operation.

“Jerry Orr recognizes that we are Charlotte’s front door for a lot of well-known personalities and decision-makers,” says Vince Papke, general manager for Wilson Air in Charlotte. “We know how important that first impression is and pride ourselves in having very high customer satisfaction levels.”

When NASCAR officials arrived at the FBO during their Hall of Fame site selection tour, their plane was guided onto the ramp by an official NASCAR pace car Wilson staff had secured. The ramp crew wore full “pit crew” uniforms and displayed checkered flags for directional signals. One of the search committee officials commented that Charlotte was the only city that had greeted them with such enthusiasm.


Leveling Out

Today, Wilson Air Center offer services 24 hours a day on a 20-acre campus with a spacious ramp where virtually any size aircraft can taxi up to deliver or collect passengers. The campus also offers more than 220,000 square feet of heated hangar space, 20 private T-hangars and 19 shade-ports for aircraft storage. State-of-the art security puts minds at ease and there is a separate terminal for private airline charter and sports team ground support services. Once arrivals step off the tarmac, they’re greeted by friendly customer service representatives in a newly renovated executive terminal even Kemmons Wilson would approve of.

The executive terminal lounge is filled with comfortable upholstered chairs, lush plants and tasteful table lamps emitting soft lighting. Classical music plays in the background as uniformed pilots help themselves to coffee or a cold drink at a long beverage bar or watch business news on a large flat-screen television as they await clients. Tables and counter stools line the glass front, where a clear view of ramp activities reveals busy line service technicians, all neatly uniformed and outfitted in bright orange safety vests, busily marshalling planes in and out, chocking, fueling and towing as necessary.

Since FBO arrivals and departures are unscheduled, the Wilson ground crew staff must be ready for anything at any time. As a plane lands, staff members spring to action. A shiny courtesy bus which has a dedicated driver heads out to greet the passengers and transport them and their baggage back to the terminal. The courtesy bus, which the airport purchased, is just one of the things that set Wilson Air Center apart from other FBOs. Wilson Air’s  management agreement with the airport and the city of Charlotte means that the city funds all improvements. Therefore, it is essential that key Wilson staff are on the “same page” as airport management.

“We make  recommendations based on our expertise and the airport can either agree or disagree,” Wilson explains. “So far, they’ve been very supportive.”

Coming from a background steeped in both hospitality and aviation puts Wilson in a unique position to assess and implement customer service-focused features and practices. Wilson knows firsthand how easy it is for pilots to opt to land – and buy fuel – at other airports.

Fuel sales are an FBO’s biggest revenue stream and a good profitability indicator. Wilson Air Center Charlotte finished its first year with a 17.2 percent increase in sales over the previous year.

“I fly to Charlotte a lot,” Wilson says. “After a while I got so irritated with the fuel prices and service at the previous Charlotte FBO that I started landing in Concord. I know pilots can choose Concord or Monroe, even if they’re not as convenient, and I know what we have to do to keep them coming here.”

Building renovations include a few touches that may not stand out at first, but can mean the world to frequent travelers. Since most people need to use the restroom immediately upon landing, Wilson located a bathroom right out front. He also eliminated doors from the bathroom in consideration of the briefcase-coat-and- coffee-toting businessperson.

A well-appointed private VIP lounge is accessible directly from the tarmac and is flanked by two private conference rooms, welcoming guests requiring heightened discretion and added security. The VIP lounge has played host to everyone from the Wachovia Championship players to Vice President Cheney.

“We’re equipped to handle anybody at any time,” Papke says. “The White House secret service detail was very happy with our facility, as it made their jobs easier.”

Wilson’s attention to detail extends to every nook and cranny of the air center. A ramp concierge greets aircraft arrivals and a front-door valet greets people coming in off the street. Four courtesy cars are available to allow crew members who are in town for just a few hours to visit local restaurants and shops. Hertz rental cars are kept on-site and customer service representatives can reserve them with just a few clicks of the keyboard. Pilot lounges and “snooze rooms” are equipped with new upholstered furniture, tables and TVs.

The flight planning room has an Automatic Terminal Information Service (ATIS) set up that allows pilots to assess current flight and airport conditions. A direct connection to the control tower lets them get cleared for takeoff from the terminal instead of waiting inside their aircraft, precious fuel burning, for clearance. A 32-inch flat screen monitor displays weather radar data. Wireless Internet is available throughout the building and three – soon to be four – Internet terminals are available for crew use.

Wilson and Papke are particularly proud of the dispatch area. “We started out with the customer services reps doing the dispatch duties but quickly realized that wasn’t working to the best advantage of our customers,” Papke says. “Now we have a full-time dispatcher here during the week and it really helps things run more smoothly.”

In just one year, Wilson Air Center has transformed the FBO into one of the best in the nation. It was ranked 23rd among the thousands of FBOs in the United States by Professional Pilot Magazine this year, marking the first time a Charlotte FBO has placed in the top 50 since the 1980s.


Clear Skies Ahead

Making the switch from Signature to Wilson last February was as turbulent as flying through a thunderstorm. For starters, the main facility was sorely in need of renovations, forcing Wilson to manage its services from a temporary facility next door. Unfortunately, the facility wasn’t quite ready when the switch was flipped. Wilson staff, including Bob Wilson and his wife Susan, scrambled to clean up and refurnish the run-down building as Signature was closing up shop.

“We were slated to take over at midnight and were busy moving furniture in and covering holes in the wall with pictures,” Wilson says with a laugh. “Then right around four or five in the afternoon the Signature folks took off and we were left with an FBO to run. There could be five jets taxiing up at any minute. That was interesting.”

“We finally sat down at about one in the morning to toast the new FBO,” Papke adds.

Wilson Air operations moved into the temporary facility a few weeks later and transferred everything again into the newly renovated building in March. A three-story addition is slated to begin construction soon, as is an arrivals canopy that will run along the length of the terminal to keep people out of the elements. Ramp upgrades are also in the works and Wilson’s ten-year project plan includes adding hangar space. But all those plans take a backseat to cultivating superior personnel.

“I learned a long time ago that it’s the people that make or break a company’s success,” Wilson says. “We could run this facility on fewer employees but we couldn’t reach the level of service we’re achieving without everyone pitching in.”

All of Wilson’s employees undergo specialized customer service training during which they learn about the “Wilson Attitude,” an across-the-board expectation of courtesy and professionalism at all times. They also learn to remove one word from their vocabularies.

“Our staff is instructed never to say ‘no’ to a customer’s request,” Papke says. “If they can’t find a way to meet the customer’s needs they should seek out the advice of management.”

Wilson and Papke know happy employees mean happy customers and they find creative ways to show their appreciation for good work and to keep morale high. Each year a team of staff members is chosen to attend the National Business Aviation Association convention, which has been held in Orlando, Fla., for the past few years. It just so happens that Kemmons Wilson Companies owns a large and luxurious timeshare property in Orlando, so Wilson’s convention-goers stay in high style. On any given day, pilots taxiing in might be greeted by an impromptu employee barbecue or luau, things Papke arranges to keep things fun for employees and customers alike.

Watching the Wilson staff working together to provide top-notch service to everyone from a high-powered CEO headed to a big meeting to a family leaving for a little recreation, it’s clear the company has found a winning combination of service, amenities and low prices.

“Things are going absolutely great,” Orr says. “Wilson has met and exceeded our expectations. We used to get nothing but complaints and now we get nothing but compliments.”

Lisa Hoffmann is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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