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Glacier Jet: a big listener in big sky country

Most people can't wait to check into Big Sky Country, drawn by stunning wilderness, startlingly blue bass-filled lakes, clear streams dripping with iridescent trout, and millions of unspoiled acres roamed by grizzly and black bears, sly wolves, stately moose, plentiful deer and elk, lithe mountain goats and 300-pound sheep wearing magnificent, curled horns.

But there's one Kalispell resident who can't wait to check out.

Several times a year for days on end, Mike Talbot, general manager of Glacier Jet Center at Glacier Park International Airport (KGPI), leaves his young family behind in this Rocky Mountain paradise, flying his aircraft across America, hungry for the scenery of concrete ramps, metal-clad hangars and untold dimly lit pilots' lounges.

Talbot flies into fixed base operations (FBOs) searching for something that just might improve the customer experience at Glacier Jet Center.

"When I land at an FBO, I'm just a line pilot who's going to poke and prod," Talbot explains, "so employees are free to talk about what they do. I take notes from an operations standpoint about what we like and don't like, then share that with our folks back home."

To launch the summer of 2014, Talbot visited FBOs up and down the east and west coasts and across a swath of Canada, sampling aviation service from White Plains to Miami, San Diego to Seattle. Talbot's border-to-border journey logged 25 hours of flight time in June alone.

"I'm fortunate to have a great staff so I can focus my time looking for ways to diversify and grow our business," says Talbot.

For Glacier Jet Center – a Phillips 66® Aviation-branded dealer that's open 24/7, 365 days a year – providing service to match the majesty of Montana is motivational. Glacier can handle everything from international customs to international garbage with a 9,000-foot runway and a stressed pad right in front of the FBO that can manage the weight of a 747.

"I tell my staff 'You are the first impression of Flathead Valley' and ask 'How would you like to be approached if you were coming into the valley for the first time?'" Talbot explains. "We impress upon each employee that we are the first and last impression for folks who come through Kalispell."

The bottom line, according to Talbot, is that pilots and passengers ultimately want FBOs to provide attentive service no matter what they fly in on.

"Whether showing up in a Cessna 150 or Boeing Business Jet, the customer should receive the same level of service," says Talbot. "On the reverse side you want to exceed their expectations. You figure if you give everybody excellent service every time, you'll never under deliver.

"We strive to stage the Cessna next to FBO right next to the big iron, safety permitting" he says. "We like to provide them the same level of services as the big guy when we're able to, and if we're not able to, for whatever reason, I take time to talk to our staff and service managers to find what the issues are."

This is an ex-military man who likes to lead by example, out where the rubber meets the ramp.

Upping the game

A West Point grad who once led a helicopter company into combat, Talbot pilots missions today in a Bell 429 that drops sleeping bag-wielding customers deep into backcountry gems like the Bob Marshall Wilderness, Spotted Bear and Meadow Creek for rafting or month-long camping excursions surrounded by unblemished scenery.

A decade in the military taught Talbot to listen to team members.

"An Army company is such a big organization there is no way one person can impact and deal with everybody exactly how you'd like to," he explains. "You have to listen to people to be a success. Asking the right questions, surrounding yourself with the right people and empowering them to make decisions on their own while working together as a team is, I think, the right way to run an FBO.

"We look for people that are smart, willing to work hard and ask the right questions. Then we train to proficiency."

Management staff tenure at Glacier Jet runs eight years minimum up to 20-plus years. "We have a team with a ton of experience," says Talbot.

The FBO has a newly certified Part 145 repair station, provides Cirrus-certified maintenance and has a Bell Helicopter-certified mechanic.

But Glacier Jet's scenic Northwest Montana location means it must rely on transient business. That, says Talbot, is a challenge that only makes the FBO better.

"From a business standpoint, it requires us to provide timely, accurate service for every customer every time because we don't have very many active flight departments we see every day," explains Talbot. "We have to up our game to meet or exceed expectations."

Supporting local the Big Sky Country way

Regional airlines Allegiant flies into Glacier Park International Airport and relies on Glacier Jet for everything: above and below the wing, the customer counter, the gate and all else.

Another Kalispell-based aviation icon, fuel marketer CityServiceValcon (CSV), supplies Glacier Jet with Phillips 66 Aviation jet fuel and avgas, as it does 81 other FBOs across 17 states.

Working closely with CSV, Glacier uses Phillips 66's Partners-Into-Plane contract fuel program as a time-saver.

"Into-Plane helps us simplify operations at the front counter," Talbot says. Glacier Jet also takes advantage of other Phillips 66 Aviation programs such as WingPoints® Rewards and NATA Safety 1st-certified training.

"We try to support the Wings® Card and WingPoints programs any way we can," says Talbot. "We try to use their brand to let people know we take value in our brand, and we provide them the best Phillips 66 service and products we can. Every single employee goes through the NATA Safety 1st program. It's one way we set up our people for success."

And come August 30-31, Glacier will be fueling the Mountain Madness Airshow when the United States Air Force Thunderbirds will join eagles soaring across the broad horizon of Flathead Valley.

Still, for Talbot, the nuts and bolts of business success comes down to something more basic: conscientious interaction with every customer.

"We're constantly reaching out to our customers to get candid feedback," he says. "That helps us improve their experience and our profits."

For the pilots among the 3 million summer visitors to Glacier National Park, that approach makes Glacier Jet worth checking into.