Choice Aviation Blames County Commissioners
The Valley County Airport Commission called a special meeting Monday to discuss their options since Choice Aviation has asked for termination of its management and fixed base operator (FBO) contracts with the Airport Commission, effective Dec. 22.
Under these contracts, which were signed March 1, 2012, and supposed to run until June 30, 2017, Choice Aviation runs the Glasgow airport with two full-time and two part-time employees. Choice Aviation also operates airports in Ennis, Hamilton, Stevensville and Cody, Wyo.
About 25 people attended the meeting. As various speakers mentioned , the airport is very important to the economy of the county and is a service to the whole area.
The STAT Air Ambulance service is probably the largest user of the airport. Ted Schye, director of operations and chief pilot for STAT Air, said since it started in 1984, they have probably made 8,000 flights. Last year, their biggest year ever, they made 365 flights to take patients for critically needed care.
“Glasgow has been an outstanding airport for years,” Schye said. “It is one of the gems of northeast Montana. This airport needs to keep that service up. In February, I expect somebody there to shovel the snow.”
He said the air ambulances don’t have to buy fuel here but they want to, to leave the money in this community.
“Our annual expenditures are over $1 million. Glasgow doesn’t want to see that money go away.” Schye said.
Kristie Brabeck, chairman of the Airport Commission, said they have three options to keep the airport open. One is to have the county run it. The second is to contract with another FBO and airport manager. The third is a mixture of the two, for the county to hire an airport manager and contract for an FBO.
She said the Airport Commission wanted to hear public comment and review the options. They will not announce a decision until the next regular meeting on Monday, Nov. 4. Their decision is subject to the approval of the county commissioners, who said they would “strongly consider” their recommendation.
“We plan on offering services to keep this airport up and running,” Brabeck said.
The manager duties at the airport involve general supervision of the airport and staying in compliance with the provisions of the airport’s FAA operation certificate. The manager is responsible for airport safety items and lights, does maintenance of the airport and terminal, plows snow from the runways and mows the grass, among other things. Someone is required to be available or on call 24 hours a day for emergency calls or snow removal.
The current contract pays Choice Aviation $31,500 a year for management duties.
Under the FBO contract, the operator leases airport property from the Airport Commission – the fuel farm ($2,100 per year), office space ($1,800 a year), a hangar ($2,750 a year), and fire and maintenance vehicles (cost not listed). The FBO is allowed to sell fuel, operate aircraft servicing facilities, sell aircraft and parts, maintain a repair shop, provide storage space for aircraft and provide charter service and flight training.
The fuel farm consists of two 12,000-gallon underground tanks, which were bought in the middle 1970s. They still pass safety tests, according to Valley County Commissioner Dave Pippin, but they have reached the end of their useful life and will need to be replaced soon with modern, above-ground tanks.
Choice Aviation owns the fuel pump and the two fuel trucks that services larger aircraft. Brabeck said the Airport Commission is negotiating with Choice to continue using the pump and trucks.
One of the two named partners in Choice Aviation came to speak at the special meeting. Leland Blatter was from this area and owned the FBO before selling to Choice Aviation and moving to Hamilton. He said Choice Aviation’s decision to leave was a difficult one, not taken lightly, and was emotional for him, based on what he knew would be the fallout to the aviation community.
He said it seems the county commissioners don’t want them here.
Blatter said Choice offered to put in a fuel farm and wanted to put up a hangar but encountered nothing but roadblocks from the commissioners. He said they operated for eight months without a contract, which showed good faith on their part, and negotiated a contract but expected the county would “work to correct discrepancies in funds.” After 22 months nothing has been done and they don’t intend to, he said.
He said he doesn’t blame the Airport Commission, saying their hands were tied by the county commissioners.
“We’ve decided to move elsewhere and conduct business in an environment where we’re welcome,” Blatter said.
He also said county-run airports do not work. In this he was echoing Schye, who had said earlier that he has never seen a county airport that has been run well.
The county commissioners did not respond to Blatter at the meeting, but refuted his statements at the next day’s regular meeting in their office. They interpreted Choice Aviation’s quest for the fuel farm (with a 40-year lease) and a hangar as a bid to take over most airport profits.
According to the commissioners, the airport sold an average of 133,000 gallons of fuel a year over the last five years. The county gets 5 cents a gallon, producing between $6,000 and $7,000 a year. The FBO makes up to $1 a gallon profit.
Choice pays $2,100 annually for use of the fuel farm, while the going rate elsewhere is $1,700 to $2,000 a month, the commissioners said.
If Choice had its own hangar, they would rent it out to transient airplanes first and deprive the county of the income, the commissioners said. Anyway, the FAA has not returned a decision on the airport plan submitted by the county so the commissioners could not approve a new hangar.
Commissioner Pippin said Choice Aviation hasn’t put anything into developing the airport. The terminal and runways were done with federal funds and grant money, with the county paying the match.
Pippin found fault with the way Choice Aviation acquired the FBO, and Valley County Attorney Nick Murnion faulted the way they deal with the county and the way they are leaving.
Blatter sold Prairie Aviation to Choice and announced it to the commissioners without giving them a chance to first investigate this new company at their airport, Pippin said.
Murnion said, “From my perspective, Choice Aviation is very difficult to work with. There is no negotiation, it’s a series of demands.”
He said the county signed a contract and Choice breached it and left early.
Pippin said he asked Blatter why the contract they signed was OK last year but this year it isn’t.
“He told me it didn’t fit their business model,” Pippin said.