FBO is short for Fixed-Base Operator. In simplest terms, they are private jet terminals. When you book a private charter flight, your broker or operator will typically advise you which FBO your flight will be departing from.
Fixed-Base Operators offer a lounge for passengers departing and arriving on private aviation flights at that airport. However, their principal revenue source is gas stations for private jets.
They provide crew lounges, weather and flight planning assistance, and some facilities at major international airports even offering sleep rooms and showers. Some FBOs also have hangar and office space. Some also provide maintenance, management for aircraft owners, and charter services. Charter brokers and other related businesses serving business aviation often lease office space, the former so they can meet and greet local clients.
Like a busy intersection of highways have multiple gas stations, busy private aviation airports have multiple FBOs. In airports with high volumes of private jet flights like Teterboro Airport serving New York City and Van Nuys Airport in Los Angeles, there are as many as six Fixed Based Operators. It’s not uncommon for even smaller airports to have at least two FBOs.
Basic amenities are a seating area with comfortable chairs and end tables where you can wait for other members of your party to arrive and meet your pilots. There is also free WiFi and toilets. If you are flying on turboprops, light, or even midsize jets where the onboard lavatory may be cramped or limited, most fliers like to make a stop before they board to freshen up.
From there it varies widely. Private meeting rooms are fairly standard. Some FBOs offer shower facilities, movie theaters, gift stores, duty-free shopping, car rental desks, concierge services, and even customs and border facilities.
You may find televisions streaming cable news. Before COVID-19, there were often free magazines and newspapers for you to pick up before boarding. However, most FBOs have now cleared these away as part of enhanced health-hygiene protocols.
If you are used to international first and business class lounges on airlines like Cathay Pacific, Emirates or Lufthansa, you may be disappointed. Typically you will find bottled water, coffee, and perhaps a popcorn maker on a complimentary basis.
Beyond that there are sometimes complimentary candies and packaged snacks. Think pretzels and biscuits. More often, sodas and packaged snacks are offered via vending machines.
Some FBOs have restaurants or a coffee shop designed to serve the local airport community, but open to passengers as well.
While you choose the airports you want to fly into or out of – one of the benefits of private travel, your operator will select the FBO. This is typically based on contracts they have for purchasing fuel. Remember, FBOs are gas stations for private jets.
Fun Fact: In the days before private jets had the range to go nonstop from coast to coast, refueling stops in Kansas and Nebraska competed for pilot loyalty by offering free steaks and other perks.
Most operators will allow you to select a different FBO, however, there might be a surcharge, typically in the hundreds of dollars.
FBOs are often on the opposite side of the airport from passenger terminals, and are sometimes distant from each other, as in miles apart. If you are arriving on an airline flight and then switching to a private jet or vice versa, make sure to find out in advance how far they are, and the best way to transit between the two.
FBOs generally have complimentary parking spaces allotted for charter customers who want to leave the cars. In some cases, it is in a secure area. Some FBOs also provide valet parking. As soon as your operator or broker provides you the FBO information for your flight, it makes sense to call ahead if you are going to need any extra services.
I subscribe to the paid edition of Ac-u-kwik, a worldwide guide to FBOs and handlers. You probably don’t need to. Location maps and basic information is free. FBOs change hands from time to time, new ones open and old ones close or relocate on the airfield. I find information on airport websites and even via Google can be out of date, so if you have special requests, call to verify.
The passenger lounge areas of FBOs are often tucked next to or behind hangars or in between what might look like a series of office buildings. Google Maps is a good tool, however, if I am going to an FBO I haven’t visited I call for directions. I also ask if there are any special instructions if I am being picked up. I’ve found in a number of cases the location drivers might get from their Uber or mapping apps aren’t accurate.
Most brokers or operators will offer to arrange ground transfers when you book at an added expense. Pilots will often ask as well when they meet you, so if you need transportation, they can take care of it. While big-city folks like me assume Uber, Lyft, or at least taxis are everywhere, I’ve arrived at rural airport FBOs where I needed to wait the better part of an hour for a local taxi service. That’s right, no rideshare drivers available.
Planeside drop-off and pick-up varies by airport and is based on security rules for that airport, so always subject to change. It’s less likely at airports where there are also commercial airlines, although that also varies. As mentioned, if you are flying on small private jets or turboprops, you will likely want to use the restroom in the FBO to freshen up before and after your flight.
A member of the FBO will assist you. If it’s not a busy FBO, you may have to go inside and ask for assistance at the reception desk. As always, don’t leave valuables in luggage that will be out of your control. While chances of theft are slight, take the same care as when you check-in to a hotel.
The FBO will coordinate loading the luggage with your flight crew, so you don’t have to do a thing. Some private jets have luggage compartments that are not accessible from the cabin, so if there are specific bags you want with you, make sure you specify. Of course, once you get to the plane, if you need a bag in the cabin, your pilots will be happy to get it from the hold prior to departure.
When you get to the FBO, go to the reception desk and let the staff know you are looking for your pilots. Unlike airline flight numbers or passenger record locators, the identifier you will use is the tail number of your aircraft. Your operator or broker should provide you this around 24 hours before departure if not sooner, sometimes when you book. When you get your tail number, you might be able to track it and see where it is coming from via FlightAware.
In the U.S. all passengers on a Part 135 charter flight, either on-demand or via jet cards, will need to provide current and valid government-issued IDs. They’ll also have to be on the passenger manifest, so make sure if you want to add passengers you do so with your broker or the operator in advance. In airports outside the U.S., there may be additional screening, including luggage and full-body scanners.
FBOs are a mix of independent, locally owned and operated businesses, franchises, and chains. In some cases they are operated by the airport authority, however, most operate under a license from the airport or local government. Signature Flight Support is the largest with over 200 locations across the Americas and Europe. Atlantic Aviation has over 50 locations in the U.S. Million Air with about 25 private terminals is known for having plush lounges (Houston Hobby terminal pictured in the header) and upscale refreshments. Signature tends to be more utilitarian.
Jet Aviation and Clay Lacey Aviation, which both offer jet card products, also operate FBOs in several locations.
NetJets and Flexjet have their own private lounges at busy airports like Westchester Country, Teterboro, and Palm Beach, generally as a separate entrance to an FBO. Jet Linx operates its own terminals exclusively for its aircraft owners and jet card customers in 19 markets.
These lounges typically offer more significant snacks as well as complimentary sodas, juices, wines, and spirits. You can even request your favorite libations. Jet Linx will valet and detail your car while you are away, having it ready for you when you return.