As the most tragic hurricane season in a dozen years mercifully winds down next week, it is important to reflect on the countless ways people stepped up to serve their fellow citizens. Having worked in aviation since 1997, I was particularly heartened by the story of a pilot bringing supplies to Puerto Rico “one plane load at a time” in this own airplane.
Our private aviation infrastructure was and remains critical during initial search and rescue, and longer-term recovery operations. It is important that it not be overwhelmed by onerous regulatory action.
In the wake of hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, and the terrible fires in Northern California, communities and families were served by facilities most people outside of aviation have likely never heard of: fixed-base operators, or FBOs. FBOs have a presence at more than 3000 airports across the country, providing fuel, maintenance, pilot facilities, and other key services for weekend hobbyists, Fortune 500 CEOs, and everyone in between who flies or has access to their own aircraft.
In recent weeks, disaster recovery agencies and individuals made use of private planes and the FBOs that service them to run search and rescue operations, facilitate evacuations, deliver supplies, transport volunteers, rescue displaced animals, and distribute medical aid. Without the support of FBOs for maintenance, fuel, logistics coordination, and on-the-ground support, this would not have been possible.
FBOs across affected areas became the temporary base of operations for such organizations as FEMA, the American Red Cross, and the Salvation Army. Some even supported the U.S. Navy, Air Force, Marines, and Air National Guard. Without FBOs, victims of natural disasters would be cut off from the fastest way to deliver essential services.
Fuel is as critical to successful rescues as anything else. During the hurricanes, many FBOs were staffed around the clock in 12-hour shifts, often with people who were themselves victims, so that airplanes could be fueled whenever needed.
Aerial firefighting is essential to combat wildfires. FBOs in the affected regions in Northern California, such as those at McClellan Airport in Sacramento and Charles M. Schultz-Sonoma County Airport, provided critical maintenance, refueling, and logistics, enabling aviation to speed the demise of the fires.
FBOs and their employees are often also active participants in local communities. They tend to forge strong relationships with community organizations, chambers of commerce, local businesses and not-for-profits. Those relationships are critical when a disaster hits home. Given the nature of their work, FBOs are well-equipped to coordinate emergency response with these local organizations.
Notwithstanding the value of FBOs, there are some who claim they are gouging their customers and undertaking other unfair practices. These claims are not supported by the facts, including high fixed costs associated with a capital-intensive industry, volatile global oil markets, and the need for agility in the wake of unforeseen events, usually weather-related.
Not surprisingly, some proposals would do far more damage than the harm they erroneously claim is being inflicted today. If artificial price caps, for example, are instituted, FBOs will likely pull back their services and, in certain places, shut down. This would force some airports to close, cutting off communities who rely on aviation to support their economies and, as we’ve seen, lend a hand when crises hit.
While it’s clear that not all FBO customers are the same, and protections for small aircraft owners should be considered, we can’t afford to weaken our capabilities or defenses with ill-considered policies.
I would urge care and caution as discussions continue, a sentiment surely shared by so many families who suffered in these disasters.
Justin P. Oberman has been in the aviation industry since 1997, working closely with business and general aviation providers including FBOs. He also helped set up TSA after 9/11 and later served as a senior executive at the Department of Homeland Security. He is based in Chicago.