Saturday, February 25, 2012

Apalachicola Regional (KAAF), Florida: Fly High new airport operator

Mari-Elena Baldwin and Karel Van Der Linden, owners of Fly High, answered questions at Tuesday's county commission meeting.

A new fuel vendor is scheduled to take over as fixed base operator at Apalachicola Regional Airport on May 1, but the length of the contract remains up in the air.

On Tuesday morning, the county commission voted 3-1 to award the contract to Fly High of Lexington, NC. Commissioner Noah Lockley voted no and Bevin Putnal was absent. The commission directed Shuler to enter into negotiations with Fly High.

The airport advisory board approved recommending Fly High after reviewing four bids at their meeting last month, one of which was from Apalachicola International Airport Training Center (AIATC), the current fixed base operation (FBO).

AITC has since taken steps to dispute the advisory board’s recommendation. County Attorney Michael Shuler said AIATC attorney Joe Silva sent a letter “demanding that the county engage in good faith negotiations to extend the lease by an additional 10-year period.”

Shuler told commissioners he did not believe AIATC had a right to extend the lease under the current contract without the commission’s mutual approval. He said their lease, which commissioners extended by three months in February to allow an easy transition to any new FBO, is set to end May 1.

Commissioners expressed concern about granting a 20-year extended contract to Fly High. “One way to be sure you get jobs is to have a shorter term contract,” County Planner Alan Pierce.

He pointed out that a new FBO would take over an existing facility, so less money and time would be required to set up operations.

“What I really want to see is a number of jobs,” said Commissioner Noah Lockley. “I want to see a lot of jobs; you know so many jobs in a number of years.”

Commissioner Smokey Parrish said “they’re going to come in and train some locals to run it to their standards but they’re going to be in North Carolina. I don’t know how that’s going to work. You’re dealing with someone you really don’t know. On paper they look very good. I’m not comfortable looking at a long-term contract now.”

Ted Mosteller, chairman of the airport advisory board said representatives of Fly High were on hand to answer questions. Karel Van Der Linden and his wife, Mari-Elena Baldwin, owners of Fly High, took the podium and were prepared to answer questions fielded by the board.

Van Der Linden described their experience in the aviation industry. According to their proposal packet, he has 25 years experience in FBO management, fuel, hotels and casinos. He served as vice president finance officer and corporate controller for Mercury Air Centers from 2000 to 2009, managing 30 FBO locations including five maintenance facilities.

Baldwin has 22 years of travel and tourism industry experience. She is the owner of Island Spice, Inc., which represents Renaissance Aruba Resort, Renaissance Curacao Resort and Grand Cayman Beach Suites. She is also a member of the Travelocity advisory board.

“You can look at our records an see in one year what we achieved in North Carolina,” Van Der Linden told commissioners.

He said Fly High increased fuel sales at the Lexington Airport by 50 percent over the first year by using media to market the facility, including building a website for the airport and courting Facebook followers to engage potential customers. He said Fly High has relationships with fleets of commercial aircraft that use fuel cards to purchase fuel nationally.

He said Fly High has 11 employees in Lexington and hopes to eventually employ the same number here. The Apalachicola airport has the potential to sell as much fuel as Lexington because the airport is well appointed and the area a tourist destination, he said.

He stressed the need for excellent on-ground service to attract pilots. “I want to come here myself with one of the senior guys but everyone else we want to hire here,” Van Der Linden said.

Fly High began with five employees in Lexington and at the end of six months, employed 11; Van Der Linden expected to employ at least nine people here.

Line employees will earn $8 hourly, managers $12 hourly and mechanics $15 hourly, he said.

Baldwin said the company has a policy of hiring pilots, veterans and aviation students. She and her husband said they are committed to being hands-on managers and will spend substantial time in the county. Van Der Linden said Fly High has infrastructure that allows him to manage most problems from anywhere in the world.

“He answers his phone at night,” Baldwin said.

Van Der Linden said the FBO station will be open seven days a week, 12 hours a day, but that he would make special arrangements to serve emergency vehicles whenever needed.

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