June 02--The Lehigh-Northampton Airport Authority agreed Wednesday to negotiate a deal to turn airport operations over to Virginia-based AvPORTS management.
The authority stopped short of hiring the Dulles company to run the airport -- it will need to strike a contract deal first. And it became clear as authority members interviewed AvPORTS officials Wednesday that it's going to be more expensive than the authority thought.
Though AvPORTS submitted a proposal to run the struggling airport for about $330,000 a year, that fee would be on top of the salary of the director it would bring in to make staff, policy and operation changes. The cost could be $500,000 a year -- above the roughly $450,000 the airport was spending on its now-departed executive director, deputy director and administrative assistant.
That didn't seem to faze John Conklin, the authority board member who led the search for a management firm.
"This company is fantastic and this is exactly the right time to bring them in," Conklin said Wednesday after a nearly two-hour interview of three AvPORTS executives. "It could cost us a little more, but at the end of the day, it would be worth it to get that kind of expertise working for us."
AvPORTS was among 22 companies that responded to LVIA's search for a management firm, but it was the only one that delivered a bid by the May 16 deadline. While some board members raved about AvPORTS' experience in managing nine other airports, such as Albany (N.Y.) International and San Bernardino (Calif.) International, the fact that it was the only suitor made James Hickey vote against even negotiating a contract.
"One proposal isn't adequate to determine the future of this airport," said Hickey, the only dissenting voter. "And now we find it's going to cost us $500,000 or maybe more? No way. We don't even have a proposal to compare it to."
Negotiating a deal with AvPORTS comes as the board tries to turn the airport in a new direction. The authority board in August forced 19-year Executive Director George Doughty to resign, in part because he allowed a dispute over land to turn into a $26 million court judgment. Then in March, Doughty's expected successor, longtime Deputy Director Larry Krauter, resigned to run an airport in Spokane, Wash.
The board quickly turned to a new plan to hire an aviation management company it hopes can make what could be drastic changes needed to set a new course. That way, in perhaps two years, an executive director could be hired to guide the airport.
During the interview, AvPORTS executives won fans by forecasting a bright future for LVIA.
"We see this as an airport with a lot of promise," AvPORTS CEO Oswin Moore said. "It's just a matter of time before it explodes in a certain way. Your timing could not be better."
AvPORTS' proposal seeks $325,000 for the first year and $335,000 in the second year, with an airport option to keep the company for $345,000 for a third year. The director's salary would be additional.
AvPORTS officials also hope to earn incentive bonuses for raising passenger traffic or reducing airport costs or attracting new airlines such as the highly coveted Southwest.
The director AvPORTS has pledged to bring in impressed most of the board members .
Charles Everett Jr. is manager of the National Planning and Environmental Division of the Federal Aviation Administration, and is the FAA's liaison to Congress. He formerly managed an airport in Syracuse, N.Y., and would leave his job with the FAA to take over LVIA. Eventually, Everett could leave AvPORTS and become the airport's permanent executive director.
Moore said his company will do whatever is in the best interest of the airport, no matter how difficult.
"If we have to introduce a new culture, we will do that," Moore said. "Change people, move people in, move some out -- whatever it takes. We'll do it."
That kind of talk is unlikely to bring comfort to the airport's 200 full- and part-time workers.
If a contract can be negotiated in the coming weeks, Conklin said, a vote on whether to hire AvPORTS could happen June 28.