Friday, July 22, 2022

Aviation firm gets ousted from Chesterfield County Airport (KFCI) for missteps

It’s a divorce – or a couple of them – that may get ugly.

On June 29, the Chesterfield County Airport revoked its contract with Richmond Executive Aviation, one of two fixed-based operators (FBO) at the airport.

REA’s CEO Mark Hackett posted news of the company’s “forced closure” at the airport premises in a Facebook post that day. “The airport authority notified REA yesterday that they were revoking our FBO contract effective immediately, and asked REA to phase down operations,” Hackett wrote. “With less than 24 hour notice, the County arrived under armed escort to get the keys to our buildings.”

REA has been open for business at the airport since 2019 after being approved by the Board of Supervisors in 2018. The county says that REA defaulted on numerous contract terms, failing to meet minimum standards for an FBO, while Hackett threatens a lawsuit, claiming the county favored his company’s competitor, Dominion Aviation.

“In the contract, there is a clause that says after three defaults in a 12-month period, the county has a right to revoke the contract,” says John Neal. Neal is the director of general services at the Chesterfield County Airport and a member of the Airport Advisory Board. “A default is failure to meet the terms and conditions of the contract.

“For example, there are guidelines on how airline fuel should be handled. They did not follow those steps and did not provide a plan on how they were going to correct it.”

Hackett, a retired airline pilot, addressed the situation last week speaking only on his own behalf, he said, and not REA’s. He offered what he characterized as his personal opinions on the issues leading to REA’s removal.

He says a double standard was applied to his company. For example, he claims REA was cited for failing to maintain an operational multiengine aircraft for its flight school, while Dominion Aviation was offered relief from operating a flight school entirely. Dominion Aviation does operate a flight school with a multi-engine aircraft, but Hackett says the offer or relief was never extended to REA.

He also says he tried to work with the county on some of the issues. For example, REA was cited for employing one fulltime airplane mechanic, instead of the two required.

“Due to the skilled labor shortage, we’ve had trouble hiring a second mechanic,” he says. “But we provided proof to the county and the auditors that we’ve been advertising for that position with an industry-leading salary for a year.”

Furthermore, Hackett says there was friction with Dominion Aviation, which has been operating at the airport for more than 35 years. Until REA arrived, Dominion Aviation was the only FBO onsite. “We took many contracts away from Dominion Aviation,” he says. “We took their contract with the State Police and their military fuel contract.”

Another contested issue was the use of the main terminal building and ramp. Hackett says that REA lost access to the main terminal shortly after signing the contract. In his view, it’s evidence that the county favored his competitor. “We can only speculate,” he says. “But I believe that after 35 years of building relationships, my competitor has relationships with powerful people in powerful places.”

The county denies partisanship and Neal says that revoking the contract was a straightforward decision. “There were instances where they didn’t have the staff on hand to service an aircraft when it landed. There were instances where they didn’t have enough fuel,” he says. “There are certain service standards an FBO must meet to provide an appropriate level of service for the customers.”

But the fate of REA also faces an internal struggle.

On April 29, Hackett, who founded REA, filed a civil suit in Chesterfield County Circuit Court against business partner Wendell “Ray” Gibson.

Hackett’s case, according to court records, says Gibson sabotaged a $2.5 million loan funded by Chesapeake Bank and has “sabotaged the day-to-day operations, and has agreed to pay for the contractor for the build-out of hangars and other action’s to curtail [Hackett’s] actions.”

As plaintiff, Hackett accuses Gibson of fraud and says he “falsely induced [Hackett] to partner with him based on the representation that REA would be an equal partnership and that REA would secure a commercial loan for startup costs and hangar construction.”

Hackett is seeking damages of $4.5 million, a punitive [fine] of $350,000, an injunction barring Gibson from REA’s financial transactions and from any disparagement of Hackett or others associated with REA.

At press time, Hackett could not be reached for further comment about the lawsuit. Both Gibson and Thomas “Mike” Mickel, founder and CEO of Dominion Aviation, declined comment.

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