Thursday, May 01, 2014

Glendale Municipal Airport (KGEU), Arizona: Sued by pilots

The Glendale Airport Pilots Association sued the city for forcing pilots at the Glendale Municipal Airport to clear their non-flight related belongings from their hangars, a move the city made to appease the FAA with millions of dollars at stake 

Story Highlights
  • Glendale told pilots to clear their non-flight-related belongings from hangars to appease the FAA
  • Even with its choice location, the airport struggles to attract activity and keep hangar tenants
  • The pilot association blames the city's management for dwindling hangar occupancy, flight activity

Nearly 20 pilots have pooled their cash to file a lawsuit against the Glendale Municipal Airport alleging breach of contract, broken promises, changing contracts and loss of property value.

The pilots, who filed the suit in Maricopa County Superior Court on April 15, want the city to allow them to continue storing their non-flight-related belongings in the hangars they have used for years.

Although Glendale officials would not comment on the potential impact of the lawsuit, one attorney suggested the outcome could put at risk millions of federal dollars the city depends on for improvements and expansion.

The suit is the latest in a series of setbacks that have plagued the West Valley airport. Airport Administrator Walt Fix has spent years clearing up problems the Federal Aviation Administration demanded the airport fix or risk losing grant funding.

Airport struggles

Pilots across the Valley and beyond use the airport to refuel or park for sports and entertainment activities around Glendale. The airport is one of six regional airports to relieve Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport from flight-school, personal and corporate-jet traffic, and only 15 percent of the airport's activity comes from pilots based on-site, Fix said.

RELATED: Glendale airport works to keep FAA funds flowing

But even with its choice location — within view of University of Phoenix Stadium and less than 5 miles from Camelback Ranch Glendale — the airport struggles to attract activity and keep hangar tenants. Takeoffs and landings declined by the tens of thousands since 2010, and the airport's activity has always lagged the other reliever airports.
With 2.1 million tower operations over the past two decades, the airport comes in last of the six, behind Phoenix Goodyear Airport with 3.3 million operations.

More than 200 of the 371 hangars and shade structures lie vacant at Glendale's airport, while all other West Valley airport hangars are full and even have waiting lists. The Buckeye Municipal Airport, Phoenix Goodyear Airport and Deer Valley Airport rent out hangars, while pilots own their space at Glendale's airport.

Glendale once hoped to make its airport the Scottsdale Airport of the West Valley, extending the runway and bringing in a new service center for pilots with a far fancier setting to attract swanky corporate jets. But those aspirations stalled under the weight of the sagging economy, the bankruptcy of the airport-service provider and a lawsuit. Now, Fix's priority is to keep the airport well-maintained and continue serving as a reliever for Sky Harbor.

"Glendale is not a popular airport. It's pretty much an airport that people fly over," said Daryl Williams, a pilot and attorney for hangar owner Valley Aviation Services. "It could be, if there wasn't this strife."

Fix attributes the decline in activity to losing a major flight school, the economic downturn and rising fuel prices. Members of the Glendale Airport Pilots Association blame the city's management for the dwindling hangar occupancy and flight activity.

Hangar owners fight city

For more than 10 years, the north-end hangar owners, who lease the ground but own occupancy rights, had stored their model cars, boats, RVs, exercise equipment, antique collectables and more alongside their airplanes.

A culture had formed around the man-cave-like hangouts, one Mayor Jerry Weiers relished as a place where like-minded men would spend afternoons comparing war stories and talking about "cars and women and grandkids."

That carried on until the south-end hangar owner, represented by Williams, sued the city in 2009 for allowing north-end hangar owners to store non-flight-related belongings while prohibiting his tenants from doing the same. Not only did the city lose the suit and paid $1.7 million to Williams' client, but the FAA threatened to cut off Glendale from grant funding.

RELATED: Glendale's airport hangars fading as pilots' fun hangouts

The federal agency stipulates that Glendale allow only aeronautical storage in hangars in order to receive the grants. The city had to force the RVs and antiques out — or risk forgoing $20 million over the next five years for asphalt improvement and apron expansions for future development, Fix said.

Airport storage
Fix pointed to the pilots' generous deal on land leases as a reason to keep their space free of non-aeronautical storage. At 9 to 24 cents per square foot on the north end, Fix said if pilots use their hangars like regular storage facilities, they're doing so "at the taxpayers' expense."

"The city could be collecting a lot more rent from multistorage, meaning more revenue," Fix said. "If the airport got more revenue, we'd be self-sustaining. I could balance my budget, and that means less money comes out of our general fund to support the airport. We don't break even."

So, Fix embarked on mass inspections in 2011, initially turning up 117 hangars in violation, including Weiers' property stuffed full of antique Coca-Cola coolers, an antique car, vintage soda machines and a retro washing machine.

Although hangar owner Roy Bryan said many pilots "have to move their stuff out for the inspection and move their stuff back in," Fix said he is down to just one outstanding citation. He has addressed all other concerns the FAA posed and plans to send a letter next week requesting the FAA deem the airport in compliance for future grant assurances.

The problem? 

Former administrations had for years allowed the pilots to keep whatever they wanted. The city even approved advertisements when the hangars were constructed that mentioned RV accommodations, and it approved plans that show large-amperage electronic outlets and RV hookups, according to the pilot association's court filing.
But the contracts stipulate that hangar owners comply with the airport's rules, and Glendale inserted a rule in the books shortly after the FAA ruling that said no one using airport property could do anything that hindered the city's ability to receive grant money. The pilot association's court filing argues that the government cannot change contracts for financial benefit.

Richard Goldman, president of the pilot association, said hangar values have plummeted and his group likely would ask for about $20 million from Glendale to make up for the loss.

Glendale officials would not comment on the potential impact of the lawsuit, and an FAA spokesman said he could not comment because staff was unaware of the filing.
Williams, who said his client has made peace with the city, said Glendale got itself into a conundrum.

"If these hangar owners prevail, then I believe that the federal funding is at risk and there is a chance that the city may be in the (position) of having to pay back a lot of money to the feds, or condemning these properties and buying these people out," Williams said.

West Valley Airport activity

Glendale Municipal Airport
 6801 N. Glen Harbor Blvd., Glendale.
January 2011 to December 2013 takeoffs and landings: 231,063.
Runway length: 7,150 feet.
Hangars or covered plane tie-downs: About 370.

Phoenix Goodyear Airport
 1658 S. Litchfield Road, Goodyear.
January 2011 to December 2013 takeoffs and landings: 403,433.
Runway length: 8,500 feet.
Hangars or covered plane tie-downs: Nearly 170.

Phoenix Deer Valley Airport
 702 W. Deer Valley Road, Phoenix.
January 2011 to December 2013 takeoffs and landings: 1.3 million.
Two runway lengths: 8,196 feet and 4,499 feet.
Hangars or covered plane tie-downs: Nearly 800.

Buckeye Municipal Airport
3000 S. Palo Verde Road.
Average takeoffs and landings in a year: 12,500 to 13,000.
Runway length: 5,500 feet.
Hangars: More than 40.

Sources: Glendale Municipal Airport, Phoenix Goodyear Airport, Phoenix Deer Valley Airport, Buckeye Municipal Airport and the Federal Aviation Administration

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