Friday, March 23, 2012

City seeks private airport manager

If all goes as planned, the Fernandina Beach Municipal Airport will become the city's third enterprise operation to be managed by a private company.

Mickey Baity, chair of the city's Airport Evaluation Advisory Committee, said in a presentation during Tuesday's commission meeting that a private management company would be the best choice for the airport. The city marina and city golf course have also been taken over by private management in recent years.

Richard Johnson has been airport manager since 2006, but it was announced at the meeting that he would retire on May 1.

City commissioners gave their consensus to send out a request for proposals for a professional aviation company to manage services at the city airport. A workshop will also be scheduled to publicly discuss the matter before a final decision is made.

Baity said committee members, after studying airport governance reviews and meeting with airport authorities, decided the city should remain as airport sponsor. The committee considered several different options for management, including the current operation, a dependent airport authority, an independent airport authority, another government entity, privatization and contract management.

Baity said that, although the airport's staff has done very well "for what they have," the airport is still underachieving and needs to be better marketed.

"The current model works well ... (but) the airport has reached a position where the manager can't bring a skill set to bring it forward," Baity said.

Interim City Manger Dave Lott said that Johnson's retirement also "brings up the issue of timing."

"We talked with a lot of people about management types," said Vice Mayor Jeffrey Bunch, who was also on the advisory committee. "We came up with (a management plan) like the golf course and the marina. We're not bringing in any bigger jets, we're just capturing what comes in and giving them a better feel when they come in."

Bunch said the committee also discussed the need to bring in more light industry and businesses to the airport, to improve services and bring jobs to the island.

Commissioner Tim Poynter said he had heard concerns there "might be some confusion" between a management company and the fixed-based operator, McGill Aviation, that is already at the airport.

Baity said there are airports where the fixed-base operator manages the airport, and other airports where the airport authority manages the fixed-base operator. He added, however, that McGill could bid on the airport management job if it so desired.

The city has been in a years-long legal dispute with McGill that it lost in a final judgment last summer. The Fourth Judicial Circuit Court ordered the city to pay $1.2 million in attorney fees and other costs to McGill, but the city is appealing that judgment. McGill Aviation mainly handles fuel sales and light ground support at the city airport.

Bunch said a management company would "manage the airport just like we do now," but "might request that they open their own fixed-base operator."

"It's nothing to do with running out the current fixed-base operator," Bunch said. But, if another FBO was at the airport, they would have to build their own terminal or welcome center, Bunch said.

"Are we going to fund them and build another terminal?" Commissioner Charles Corbett asked. "I don't see why we should go into competition with the FBO that's out there."

"That would be something the city commission would direct Mr. Lott to put into the RFP," City Attorney Tammi Bach said. "It's not a second FBO as I understand it."

"In light of Mr. Johnson leaving, it makes sense to look at this," Poynter said. "If we decide (a management company) is not right for our community, we can hire someone else to run the airport."


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