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From flight school to FBOFrom flight school to FBO

If done correctly, diversifying is a proven strategy that can help flight schools mitigate risk and increase profit. But branching out to a full-service FBO? That’s more of a jump.

Waco Flying Service started just three years ago as a two-man, one-airplane flight school. On Jan. 1 of this year the company opened a full-service fuel and flight training facility, with maintenance soon to follow. The journey from flight school to FBO started with a desire to control costs. Aaron Dabney, Waco Flying Service’s chief instructor, said they figured they could save tens of thousands of dollars a year by self-fueling. That led to a conversation with Avfuel, which said there might even be a market for a full-service FBO.

In two years the school’s owner secured funding, got the necessary approvals from the airport, built a new facility, hired and trained staff, and opened the doors. Of all the hurdles, Dabney says working with the airport was probably the most difficult. “It’s easy for the airport manager to say ‘great idea,’ but it’s harder to make it happen. We’re the first new building on the airport since 1995 and first new FBO in 20 years,” he said.

The key to success, he says, is coming in with the proper attitude. Whether it’s working with a competitor on the airport, the airport manager, or anyone else, their approach has been that they are going to be a good neighbor and offer great service. Dabney says it’s not so much about besting the competition as it is making sure you stay true to your company values.

For Waco Flying Service, those values are customer service and small-airplane owner appeal. In doing their market research, Dabney said they got a sense that many pilots believed FBOs were catering only to larger aircraft. With their small aircraft roots, he believed they could do a good job of appealing to all pilots, regardless of the airplane they fly. “We would treat a pilot in an old 150 the same as a pilot in a Gulfstream,” he said. And initial reviews on Airnav.com seem to confirm this.

It was also important for Dabney and the owner to keep the flight school, and not only because it was profitable when they decided to expand. “We want to be what FBOs used to be,” he said. Their motto is “old fashioned service in a state of the art facility” and Dabney said that having a flight school helps them achieve that.

For others considering this route, he has some advice.

  1. Know your timeline, and then double it.
  2. Know your market and your marketing plan, but don’t be afraid to make adjustments as you learn new things.
  3. Great prices and a great facility will never be everything. It’s all about how the customer feels when he leaves.
  4. Make sure you can afford it. Even after building, training, buying fuel, etc., you have to have money to operate in the beginning.
  5. Have good partners. He says they couldn’t have done it without Avfuel.
Ian J. Twombly

Ian J. Twombly

"Flight Training" Editor
AOPA Pilot and Flight Training Editor Ian J. Twombly joined AOPA in 2003 and is an instrument flight instructor.

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