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HomeNewsroomBAS in the News2009Bellingham International Airport Adds New FBO

Bellingham International Airport Adds New FBO

As a long-time local pilot, Jeff Geer has seen more than his share of fixed-based operators come and go at the Bellingham airport, with varying degrees of success.
Now the operations manager for Bellingham Aviation Services, his plan is to stop the merry-go-round of FBOs at the airport by offering more services than others have done. The traditional FBO offers a variety of services at the airport, including fueling, flight school, charter service, plane rental and equipment repair.

BAS officially got started at the Bellingham International Airport in January, joining Bellingham Aero (which started in October 2002 as a flight school) in the sharing of FBO duties. BAS has been busy in its first 90 days, most recently adding a twin-engine plane to its flight school fleet, hiring six employees and getting construction started on its avionics and maintenance repair shop. It is the sole fuel provider for the Horizon commercial planes and has been competing with Bellingham Aero for other fueling duties.

Geer and his three other partners, who are all pilots, have been waiting and planning for more than 15 years for this opportunity to run an FBO at the airport, taking careful note of what did and didn't work with previous companies. When the Port of Bellingham decided to relinquish the airport's fueling duties to private business, Geer and his partners decided to make their move.

"We've been noticing more activity at the airport recently, especially in corporate jet service, and decided now is the perfect opportunity to put our plan into action of providing an FBO that will grow, and in turn create more business at the airport," Geer said. The biggest lessons that Geer said he's learned about having a successful FBO in an airport the size of Bellingham is that solid financial backing and a focus on service are needed to get through the first few years. "I think being undercapitalized was a key factor in the past and as a result they couldn't offer the services that customers expect from an FBO," Geer said. "So the corporate jets would stay away and get fuel and maintenance at another airport. They (past FBOs) wouldn�t get a second chance to win those pilots over."

More than just pumping fuel
Geer said another factor in getting started now is he felt the Port of Bellingham did a good job providing consistent service in fueling planes before putting the services out to bid.

"They invested in some infrastructure and manpower to make fueling a turnkey operation," Geer said. "Pilots could count on the fact there would be fueling services available, making it easy for someone to step right in and maintain that level the port had established." It does concern Geer that there are two companies providing fueling services, however. When a private plane lands at the airport, there is a bit of competition between BAS and Bellingham Aero employees to see who can win over the customer. "I think only one fueler can make it at this airport based on the number of planes landing here each day," Geer said. "However, from a pilot's standpoint, the competition is great news. A pilot can land the plane and look for the best price, just like a car driver would when they see two gas stations at the same intersection."

Linda Marrom of Bellingham Aero thinks the two companies can coincide when it comes to fueling and flight school.

"The fueling will be a little competitive, but both companies are getting their share and the flight schools have different niches," Marrom said. "At first we were a little nervous about how this will work, but we're not worried anymore. There is room for both of us."

BAS's new flight school is also in direct competition with Bellingham Aero, but Geer thinks that both schools can thrive at the same airport because they each have different niches. Geer said Bellingham Aero offers the better price with its older planes and analog equipment, while BAS charges more but offers instruction on planes that have newer digital equipment.

"There will be the budget-conscious pilots who will prefer to go with Bellingham Aero. We try to attract potential pilots who are interested in a different kind of plane," Geer said. "Our new twin-engine plane is for someone interested in learning that model or for those interested in someday becoming a commercial pilot." What may make the biggest different to BAS's bottom line, however, will be how well the maintenance and avionics repair shops do in attracting new customers. Both will be in the same hangar and should operational later this spring. "We had hoped to get an earlier start on the shops, but the paperwork involved with getting FAA certification is taking a longer than we expected," Geer said.

The avionics department, which handles the electronic equipment of a plane, including the radio, should be a valuable service to local pilots because there are very few places in Washington to get that kind of work done. BAS purchased the assets of San Juan Avionics of Port Angeles and is moving it to Bellingham, leaving Arlington, Everett and Seattle as the other local sites for this repair work. "It can be very busy in those shops, so we are hoping to attract some of those customers waiting to get work done," Geer said. "We've already heard from some people who are chomping at the bit, waiting for us to get our shop open. If we can get these people to come to the airport for this kind of work, we hope it will benefit our other services, such as fueling and maintenance."

BAS hopes to hire two experienced avionics employees as soon as possible, and possibly a third by the end of the year, at very good salaries. Typically salaries for mechanics in these fields can range from $30,000 to $42,000 a year, according to salary.com. "There has been an extreme shortage of people trained in avionics, which has made it a challenge to find them, but we will," Geer said. "So that means a few more living wage salaries coming into our local economy." The mechanics department will have a manager and employees will be hired as the demand rises.

"We're going after every opportunity we can," Geer said. "Our goal is not only to grow into a regional FBO, but a national one that attracts pilots from a larger area, discovering Bellingham because they heard about the services offered at the airport." The company's long-range plan is to start offering jet- charter service, where a business executive could hop on a jet at the Bellingham airport and fly anywhere in the country. "The jet charter business is very competitive, but I think Bellingham and the lower B.C. region is becoming big enough that we can start thinking about offering it," Geer said. "It can be very convenient for those who want to fly to someplace like Yakima, for example, and don't have much time. Those of us who have flown commercially that between arriving early for check-in, a layover in Seattle and other security check-points along the way, it can make a simple trip a long one."

FBOs have had trouble staying Bellingham
Before BAS and Bellingham Aero took over the FBO fueling operations earlier this year, the port had been handling the fueling operations since Oct. 2001. The port had taken over the fueling operations from Alpha Aviation, who had lost the contract to refuel commercial airlines. Alpha Aviation had taken over the fueling operations in May 1998 after relations between the port and the previous FBO, Aviation Northwest deteriorated to the point of squabbles and lawsuits.

It remains to be seen whether having two private companies operating the fueling services for the airport will be a success. When both BAS and Bellingham Aero were approved as FBOs by the port commissioners in November, the thinking was that the FBOs would need to offer other services in order to make money.

Art Choat, director of aviation and port security, said soon after the FBO issue was settled that the airport had established a solid customer base to give private enterprise a good start at getting established. They wanted to have two businesses handling the operations because the competition would benefit the airplane owners.

"The port commission wanted to make sure that we didn't take any steps backwards when it comes to service. This competition will also lead to additional services, which will attract more traffic to the airport," Choat said.