EL DORADO — Jet fuel sales took a nosedive last month at South Arkansas Regional Airport at Goodwin Field and the trend was attributed to a change in strategy for the area’s Essential Air Service provider.
To deal with the issue, members of the El Dorado Airport Commission agreed to proceed with a new policy requiring SeaPort Airlines to pay a $50 fee each time one of its commercial flights lands at SARA if the airline does not purchase at least 75 gallons of fuel per landing.
Additionally, outgoing Commissioner Jeff Teague said he would reach out to Tim Sieber, president of SeaPort, to discuss the matter.
SeaPort is emerging from a Chapter 11 bankruptcy that was filed earlier this year. In July, the airline filed a Plan for Reorganization and a related Disclosure Statement with the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the District of Oregon.
Tim Johnson, manager of SARA, told airport commissioners on Monday that SeaPort has drastically changed the strategy and frequency with which it purchases fuel from the city’s fixed based operation (FBO).
“That’s had a serious impact in terms of the amount of Jet A (fuel) we sold in July,” he said.
Johnson reported that Jet A sales went from a year-to-date high of 26,661 gallons in June to 12,900 in July.
He said SeaPort typically purchased 10,000 to 11,000 gallons of fuel from the FBO each month.
Following news of the bankruptcy filing, Johnson said he had been in regular contact with SeaPort’s director of operations, expressing the community’s willingness to support the airline any way it can.
“He was very communicative in early July when we first noticed the (fuel) trends. I’ve left messages for the last three days and have not gotten any calls back,” Johnson said.
He said SeaPort switched to a fuel purchasing contract with a vendor, Avfuel, also the city’s supplier, noting that with the change, SARA’s FBO is giving up less than 10 cents a gallon.
Commissioners expressed frustration with the situation, with Commissioner Scott Cowling contending that SARA should institute fees that are commonly charged at other airports for airlines and pilots that use them.
“We’re in the business of making money, not subsidizing airlines,” Cowling said.
He referred to opinions that Mayor Frank Hash has shared about the matter in emails, noting that the opinions of some commissioners differ from Hash’s.
“I was talking about losing SeaPort, the provider of our Essential Air Service. It would be irresponsible of us,” Hash said from the audience. “Even if we have to take it in the shorts to help them through this — if we lose them, we’ll be out of it.”
Teague said the community “has bent over backwards to accommodate” SeaPort since the airline began flying out of El Dorado in 2009 and has worked to cultivate a good working relationship with airline officials.
He also said there seems to be a change in attitude since SeaPort changed its top brass earlier this year. Teague was referring to the naming of Sieber as president of airline.
“Now, it’s all about money and the bottom line and not about relationships,” Teague said.
Teague and Johnson noted that SeaPort is not charged landing fees, utilities, insurance or rent at SARA.
Hash also pointed out that SeaPort was included in $14,000 worth of upgrades the city recently made in Internet and telephone services at SARA.
“We’ve made tremendous concessions to SeaPort over the years with nothing in return except they fly into our airport,” commission chairman Mickey Murphee said. “Even with my single-engine plane, if I don’t buy fuel, I get a ticket.”
Added Cowling, “And SeaPort knows that.”
Johnson said the $50-fee policy went into effect for SeaPort on July 20. He said the airline, which offers flights to Memphis and Houston, lands at SARA four times a day during the week and twice a day on the weekends.
Johnson said SARA employees have developed favorable relationships with SeaPort pilots, and Teague said he also has a good relationship with Sieber and will contact him on the matter.
Teague said that in the seven years that SeaPort as served as the EAS in El Dorado, the airline has proven to be most reliable commercial, passenger air service that has operated out of SARA.
“It’s reflected in the number of people who use them,” Teague said.
Key to the city
In other businesses, commissioners said goodbye to Teague, who on Monday wrapped up 10 years of service on the airport commission.
Teague’s term expires on Aug. 19, and he previously announced that he would not seek another term.
Reading from a written statement, Cowling highlighted some of the projects and accomplishments that have been completed at the municipal airport under Teague’s leadership on the commission.
Teague served as chairman for much of his tenure on the airport commission.
Notably, Cowling said city has been awarded more than $9.1 million in state and federal grants for airport improvement projects, with $1.1 million in local matches.
“That’s an impressive return for the taxpayers,” Cowling said.
Hash also presented Teague with a key to the city.
“It’s been very rewarding. I enjoy taking something and making it grow and making it better if I can,” Teague said.
He thanked his fellow commissioners and city officials for their help and support of the airport over the years.
Murphee also welcomed new Commissioner Robert Rupp, who participated in his first regular meeting since being appointed to the airport commission last month.
Three positions are open on the airport commission. City Clerk Heather McVay said she has received five applications for nomination and three other people have requested applications.