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October 24, 2014

Maria Sastre, President and Chief Operating Officer, Signature Flight Support

By Neharika Padala

If you fly privately, you will end up running into Signature Flight Support with over 100 terminals globally and expanding fast, through acquisitions, new construction and affiliates.

In the past year Signature acquired Maguire Aviation of Van Nuys, CA (VNY), Jet Systems at White Plains, NY (HPN), JETS FBO at London Biggin Hill, UK (BQH), Metro Flight Services at Detroit, MI (DTW), Scottsdale AirCenter at Scottsdale, AZ (SDL), FBO 2000 at Antigua (ANU), St. Kitts (SKB) and Nevis (NEV), and Wiggins Aviation at Manchester, NH (MHT).

Licensed locations also increased during the year with agreements signed with Blue Heron Aviation, Ltd. of the Turks and Caicos (MBPV), InterDel Aviation Services Inc. of Vancouver, British Columbia (CYVR) and SkyService of Canada at Toronto (CYYZ), Calgary (CYYC) and Montreal (CYUL).

At the same time Signature Select, Signature’s licensing program for independent FBOs added Sun Air Jets of Camarillo, CA (CMA) and Sonoma Jet Center of Santa Rosa, CA (STS).

However, with a number of key locations such as San Francisco International and Newark Liberty where it is the only FBO option on the field, service was not always a top priority. That changed when Maria Sastre joined, first as Chief Operating Officer in 2010 and now President.  With a background in hospitality and innovation via Royal Caribbean International in the 2000s and United Airlines during the 1990s she has been re-engineering how Signature serves elite travelers.  During the NBAA Convention in Orlando Editor-in-Chief Doug Gollan caught up with Sastre to find out the secrets behind the turnaround.


Elite Traveler:  What was behind the focus on service?

Maria Sastre:  It’s a natural evolution introducing a customer centric approach to this business.  The reason the reason the (private jet traveler) is in this business is they want that.  They want high touch.  They want service.  They want things to be right 100 percent of the time.  No exceptions.

ET:  How did your background with airlines and a cruise line help?

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MS:  This is an industry that innately needs to perform at a higher level.  My experience is hospitality, so my experience is about addressing the needs of the customer.  Not just what you think they want but what they really want and what really makes them loyal to you.

ET:  What is Signature doing?

MS:  We’ve spent a lot of proprietary time honing in on the things we can do that will drive the customer to Signature and what can we do better than anyone else.  Part of it is growing in all the right places.  Then there is a service module that is hard to emulate because of the way we hire, train and develop our people. Thirdly, we want to create a Signature experience down to what we ask our employees to say, think and do with the customer.  It’s not easy to replicate like a website. We are pushing Signature into the space we should truly own as the premium provider.

ET:  Is there are capital investment?

MS:  We are investing a lot of capital, such as Newark, a $12 million ground to ceiling rebuild. A significant amount of the capital being invested by (parent company) BBA is in Signature.    There is a lot of investment in existing locations.  We have four construction projects right now.  And behind that we have four more.  So it is ongoing.

ET:  How big do you see the network growing?

MS:  I don’t give me team a quota.  We want to talk to the right partner.  We want to get a dialogue, get to them (for acquisitions and affiliates) and make sure it’s a right fit. I see this network being 175 to 200.  It’s a combination of the dots.

ET:  What does the high net worth private jet customer want?

MS:  I learned in hospitality you have to take the risk of creating something the customer doesn’t know they want.  You have to really know your customer.  You can ask your customer questions on a survey, and they say no to something on a checklist because they didn’t know how you were going to use it to provide a differentiated experience.

ET:  What were some of the insights as they applied to what you have done at Signature?

MS:  You can spend millions of dollars on granite counters and fittings.  At the end of the day when you get off a private jet you want a good cup of coffee, a cup of tea and to use the bathroom.  So where should we spend money? We’ve moved away from traditional guy bathrooms.  It’s simple things like floor length mirrors (in the bathroom).  (Previously) things that weren’t even thought of.  You come off a trip and you want to see how you look.  You want to have amenities in the bathroom so you can freshen up.

ET:  What else?

It’s areas like lighting, technology access, and how customers get information from us to how quickly we can close out a transaction accurately and fast.  It sounds like a given but our transactions are complicated.

ET:  How did you up your game in terms of service?

MS:  We hired The Ritz-Carlton Institute and tailored a program called Service With a Leading Edge in 2010.  Every employee from the CEO to janitor went through it.  In 2012 we re-launched it internally as Service With a Leading Edge Refueled.

ET:  Why do you think service wasn’t at the forefront much earlier?

MS:  Our business was always about refueling.  The industry was insulated around the fueling proposition.  In my view the industry is about much more.

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