In a way, American Aero founder Robert M. Bass says, it was like opening a savings account at a bank and getting a toaster.
American Aero FTW is a private aviation terminal located at Meacham International Airport and focused on refueling, ground handling, servicing and storing of business and private aviation aircraft and providing extensive crew and passenger amenities.
In aviation talk, it’s a fixed-base operator – an FBO. It is one of three based at Meacham.
Bass is not a pilot himself, but he became interested in this side of the private aviation business back in the 1980s when he had the opportunity to buy a business jet – a Learjet 35 – being sold by an FBO in Dallas.
He was a tenant at Atlantic Aviation at Meacham, operating out of the original American Airways – now American Airlines – hangar in Fort Worth. It was American’s regional headquarters before the airline moved from New York to Fort Worth.
When Atlantic decided it wanted to leave Meacham, Bass bought the lease for the hangar.
“The FBO kind of came along,” he said.
That was in 2012.
Bass has served as the chairman of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the chance to lease the historic hangar was a thrill. He and his extended family have poured a lot of effort into preservation in Fort Worth and into the renovation of the city’s downtown.
As a child, Bass knew C.R. Smith, who was vice president for the Southern Region of what was then American Airways, in Fort Worth.
It was renamed American Airlines in 1934 and Smith was elected president later that year at age 35. He would lead American for 34 years. American moved its headquarters from New York to Fort Worth in 1979.
“This really was the origin of American as we know it,” Bass says.
Over the years, Bass owned a succession of business airplanes and that means that he’s been in a number of fixed-base operations.
“I owned one of the original FBO chains that consolidated into Signature,” he said. Signature Flight Support Corp. is the world’s largest fixed-base operation and distribution network for business aviation services.
“So, I've known the business and I've seen what is done across the world in terms of what FBOs are. And I decided that if I was going to do an FBO, I would try to step each element of the experience up a notch,” he said.
“Most FBOs are pretty mundane. There seemed to be a lot of opportunity for improvement. Obviously return on investment is the objective here. So, it was kind of ‘Well, what do I need to do to step each part of the experience up a notch?’ And so, we did.” Bass said.
FBOs are basically gas stations for airplanes and that is a very competitive market.
What allows an operator to maybe charge a little more for the aviation fuel are the amenities and customer service aspects of the business that lead to dedicated and repeat customers.
When Atlantic operated the FBO, it lost 10% of market share, Bass said, so it was clear that there was opportunity to regain market share if American Aero did things right.
Since Bass opened American Aero in 2012, the company has received a number of top marks from the industry.
– In 2019, it ranked among the top five of the world’s fixed-base operators and is now No. 1 in Texas and in the southern region (Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Louisiana) in the Aviation International News Survey of FBOs. The survey is based on rankings from passengers, pilots, flight crews and dispatchers.
– In 2015, American Aero FTW became the first in the Western Hemisphere to earn International Standard for Business Aircraft Handling (IS-BAH) accreditation. In 2017, it became one of the first FBOs in the world to earn Stage 2. And in 2018, it became the first FBO in the world to earn the IS-BAH Stage 3 certification. IS-BAH is a rigorous safety and ground handling accreditation from the International Business Aviation Council (IBAC).
– In 2017, customer service representative Jackie Gates was also ranked among the top customer service reps in the world.
– In 2018, Angela Thurmond, now general manager of American Aero FTW, was recognized as one of the top 20 customer service representatives in the world in the annual Aviation International News (AIN) reader survey.
– In 2018, it was among the first FBOs in the nation to receive the inaugural Everest Fuel Preferred Award, presented at the National Business Aviation Association Schedulers & Dispatchers Conference.
– In 2019, American Aero team member Kirsti Hunsley was recognized in the “Above and Beyond” category as one of the top customer service representatives in the world, based on customer survey comments, in the AIN survey. That marked the third consecutive year for a team member to make that list.
– The FBO recently earned DCA Access Standard Security Program (DASSP) clearance as an approved gateway for travelers to and from Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. American Aero also offers on-site U.S. Customs services.
When the City of Fort Worth decided to rebuild the terminal at Meacham, it opened the way for American Aero to not only influence the design of the terminal but to move its headquarters into it.
Architects from Signature had been working with American Aero on the operational side in the old American Airlines terminal.
“We asked them to sketch what they would do. We sent the sketch to the city, the city liked it. And so the city ended up guiding their architect to do that,” Bass said. ““We have 8,500 square feet.”
The city broke ground on the new terminal building in January 2015. The ribbon cutting on the new building came in January 2017.
The detail in the American Aero space is meticulous.
For example, the glass for the building is not ordinary glass. It’s called View Dynamic Glass and it dims electronically to adjust to outside lighting conditions.
“So, on a cloudy day you can see what's going on. On a bright sunny day, you can see what's going on without being blinded. We don't have any shades to put down. We don't need any shades to put down,” Bass said.
The seating was also tested.
“The comfort of the seating was important, so it was sat in before the decision was made that that's what we bought,” he said. “You know, it's just all part of the experience and having been through the experience for what, 30 years, I had an interest. So that's where we are.”
Thurmond says the decision by aircraft operators to use American Aero rather than another FBO is relational.
The operators may have departments and schedulers who research FBOs and their amenities for passengers and make a decision based on that research if they do not personally know the location, she said. But actually experiencing the service is the key to repeat business.
Thurmond says aviation industry writers are always interested in specific stories of customer service.
“Some of the stories are incredible,” Thurmond said, “like returning a rental car for somebody, or retrieving their keys somewhere. Recently there was a safety issue with the plane where one of the line guys caught something that could have been extremely dangerous before somebody took off.”
“We are a member of Signature Select,” Bass said. “We pay a very small commission, but it provides a draw because people know at least what they're getting from Signature. Signature also has promotional programs, like Tailwinds, where customers get points they can accumulate for gift cards and things like that to bring the business here.”
The other side of customer services is safety and the operations side is certified by the International Standards Business Aircraft Operations and the International Standards Business Aircraft Handling.
“And what that gets the customer is a level of care and attention that substantially reduces any chance of an accident and damage to an aircraft,” Bass said. “It means that their fuel is pristine because we monitor the fuel. And there's a whole list of things that we pay attention to that are important parts of the experience from a safety standpoint.”
Meacham’s location five miles north of downtown Fort Worth makes it a favorite landing site for sports fans, events and teams because it is easier to get to Arlington from Fort Worth than it is to fight Dallas traffic.
Depending on the destination, Meacham can also be an option for people traveling to Dallas.
“If they're going in Dallas, Love Field is charging landing fees and it's a very busy airport,” Thurmond said. “We're a lot more convenient in that sense where we're all private aviation. Meacham is a lot less congested and a lot easier to get in and out and with no landing fees.”
American Aero has 11 acres of open ramp — the largest on the field.
Customer service can make the difference in the business.
“Repeat business is very desirable and that's always what we go for. Getting a customer one time is great. Getting them every time is the goal,” Thurmond said. “We call and we send cards, notes, checking on them, emails. We're very customer-focused.”
Sort of like offering a customer a toaster for opening a savings account.