Saturday, April 23, 2022

Lawsuit emails indicate county worked on Alpena County Regional Airport (KAPN) deal, Huron Aviation says

ALPENA, Michigan — Emails and text messages filed in 26th District Court as evidence in a lawsuit against Alpena County and the Alpena County Regional Airport show an effort to recruit a fuel supplier and another contractor to potentially replace current fuel provider Huron Aviation Services.

Huron Aviation has sued the county, seeking at least $25,000 and claiming airport staff and the county attempted to break up Huron Aviation’s business relationship with SkyWest Airlines and seize control of a fuel farm Huron Aviation claims to have invested in to build.

In a court filing, the county denied all of the allegations against it. County officials have refused to comment to The News.

Huron Aviation has provided fuel services at the airport since the county amended its contract with the company in 2019. The service agreement states Huron Aviation must have a contract to sell fuel to SkyWest or any other airline service provider at the Alpena airport. If Huron Aviation fails to have a deal in place, the county could terminate its contract with Huron Aviation.

Huron Aviation claims in its court filing that Airport Manager Steve Smigelski and Assistant Manager Ed Higgins tried to sabotage Huron Aviation’s relationship with SkyWest by seeking service quotes from fuel supplier AvFuel and Alpena Ground Services, hoping to get a lower fuel rate than Huron Aviation and pitch it to the airline in hopes the airline would abandon its business.

Higgins is also employed by Alpena Ground Services.

If SkyWest broke ties with Huron Aviation, Huron Aviation would then have breached its contract with the county and opened the door for the county to take ownership of the fuel farm and hire another company to run it.

An email dated April 7, 2021 and included with Huron Aviation’s court filing shows Smigelski inquiring to an unspecified service provider who already provides service at the airport if it would be “willing to offer expanded services” at the airport. Alpena Ground Services contracts with the county for some work, such as snow removal.

In a separate email on April 14, Smigelski reached out to Mike Kormos, the district manager at Avfuel Corp., seeking input on utilizing the company to provide fuel and to work with a separate company who would sell the gas at the airport. In the email, Smigelski told Kormos that he spoke with Randy Bricker, the president of Alpena Ground Services, who said he was keen on the idea of expanding services at the airport to include fueling duties and modifying its contract with the county to include the added responsibility.

As a deal seemed to be coming together between the airport, Avfuel, and Alpena Ground Services, Smigelski learned that SkyWest had agreed to continue to utilize Huron Aviation for its fuel, which forced any potential deal to replace Huron Aviation to be put on the backburner.

In the recipient list on Smigeski’s emails, he includes several county commissioners who served on the county Airport Committee at the time. In several emails, Smigelski notes the county is considering using the Exclusive Rights At Federally-Obligated Airports policy established by the Federal Aviation Administration, which allows airport owners who receive federal subsidies to basically terminate contracts and take over control of services if they so choose.

The airport in Alpena receives federal money because it is considered an essential air service rural airport.

As of Thursday, the county has not elected to implement the escape clause.

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