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Truck driver's heaven. Flying J maintains 130 Travel Plazas across the United States, offering all sorts of amenities to them what hauls cargo in 12-hour stretches across big plains full of nothin'. Preventive maintenance, tire services, wash bays, restaurants, fuel, audio book rentals (just return them at any Flying J when you're done), and a store selling everything from electronics to three-dollar t-shirts to clean socks to tacky wood carvings of wolves and eagles.

I recently drove from one end of the continental U.S. to the other in a Budget rental truck. The periodic appearance of a Flying J was the only thing that kept me sane during the West Texas leg from Fort Worth to El Paso.

Flying J began its history in 1968 as a small petroleum marketing company. Since then it has dramatically expanded to become the largest retail distributor of fuel in the United States. In addition to retailing diesel fuel, Flying J is engaged in petroleum exploration, refining, production, transportation, wholesaling, and retailing of petroleum products.

The company owns and operates 144 travel plazas in 44 US states and Canadian provinces. Flying J is listed on Forbes Magazine's listing of companies, coming in at # 17 of privately held companies in 2006. That is compared to their 2005 listing as #30, a sizeable move toward the top.

Travel plazas differ in size and offerings depending on location. Common amenities include fuel, travel store, restaurant, deli, convenience store, showers, and TV room for drivers. Larger centers offer lodging and vehicle repair/maintainance services, as well as parts and vehicle rentals.

Big player
In 2005 the chain enjoyed operating revenues of $9.45 billion with profits of $110 million. They also listed assets of $2.1 billion. The CEO as of 2006 is listed as J. Phillip Adams, a graduate of Utah State University. The CFO is Scott D. Clayson.

Flying J associated companies include TAB (Transport Alliance Bank), insurance, truck fleet sales, and communications services.

Small playing field
Flying J is a large player in a narrowing field of competitors. There are fewer truckstop chains these days. The prominent ones are Flying J, Pilot Travel Centers, Love's Travel Stops, Petro Stopping Centers, and T/A. Each one has its distinctive style. Drivers usually prefer to stop at a single brand if they have had a good experience with them.

Flying J offers a Wi-fi hookup that usually functions quite well, enabling truckers to find loads, send e-mail, or browse the internet for entertainment.

The restaurant in this driver's humble opinion is one of their weak points. Flying J is the McDonald's of truckstops. If you've eaten at one of them, you've eaten at all of them. They have a corporate cookbook and the food varies little from one location to the next. That cookbook has a patented chapter entitled "1000 Ways to Abuse a Chicken". The fried chicken is horribly overcooked and has not an iota of that juiciness that fried chicken should posess. I've filled out the customer comment cards until I have writer's cramp, all to no avail. People, this is supposed to be fried chicken, not clucker cinders. If I want carbon in my diet, I'll gnaw on a charcoal brickette, thanks all the same.

In their favor, they have made efforts to incorporate better nutrition into the trucker's diet. They have fish alongside of the beef dishes, as well as broiled chicken, BBQ, turkey and other offerings for the main course. Their veggies are generally quite good, especially the veggie medley. This is chunked squash, zucchini, onion, and green pepper in a buttery sauce, and it's quite nice, especially if they have rice to serve it on. Flying J's salad bar is the one spot where there is variety. The variety isn't in the selection, it's in the preparation. I've encountered tomato wedges with the stem area still there, a feature which doesn't make me very happy. Other veggies suffer from the same plight. It makes me wonder "If they didn't take time to pare away the stem, did they take time to wash it?" They have one of the better dessert bars too, usually with a soft serve ice cream machine alongside.

Food features large on a trucker's list of priorities as mealtime is one of the few times when we can pause and be a human being, wind down, take a breather. It's important that the meal time be a pleasant experience. While the general populace can recuperate in various ways at home, the trucker is somewhere that isn't home. Usually he can't go to a ball game, a movie, or other activity. He's stuck with what the truckstop has to offer, so hopefully the offerings will be top notch.

Flying J does one of the better jobs of keeping the lot safe. They chase away the lot lizards, those ladies of the evening that traditionally offer relaxation services back on party row, the back row of truck parking where it's usually darkest. They also supress the activities of gypsy vendors, those freelance marketers who offer everything from movies/music to tools to tire services to drugs. As with any large area where trucks congregate, there will be those who sneak in to sell whatever the market will buy, but Flying J tends to keep a lid on the worst of that activity.

Strong in maintaining competition
Flying J is usually the lowest priced provider of diesel in its area. This helps to force other operators to keep their prices competitive, which helps the trucking community. Flying J accepts many fuel cards, the plastic that the trucking industry runs on. Flying J refuses to accept payment from Comdata, which is one of the largest fuel card services companies on the scene. This causes Flying J to lose a lot of business but there are reasons sufficient for them to maintain this policy. From their rising ranking, it doesn't seem to have harmed them a single iota. What it does harm is the trucker's ability to fuel with them if they run with Comdata fuel cards.

Mixed customer base
Flying J also offers its services to other travelers. A common sight is a line of RV's lined up for fuel at their dedicated fueling area. As an anecdotal observation I've seen fuel desk personnel ignore truckers to spend time walking an RV'er through the process. It seems that they value that RV customer more than their bread and butter customers. They may have that RV fuel twice a year while the trucker fuels up every day. Ok, so there's my gripe on that subject.

Is anybody working here?
Flying J often has inadequate staffing at the fuel desk, and this causes inordinate delays in paying for services/products and getting back on the road. As drivers, we have federal regulations that restrict the amount of time we can work. If we are delayed, that removes time which we could have spent earning income. Flying J needs to realize this fact and staff adequately.

As with any large corporate entity there are pros and cons. In the truckstop industry Flying J is an important member. They could do many things better, but they also do many things quite well. I stop at them often and do use various of their services and will continue to do so. In a five star rating system, I'd give them 3.5 stars. There are no 5's.

This write-up composed at the Flying J Travel Plaza at Clearbrook, Virginia.



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