Airport Lease Talks Hit Turbulence


Feb. 19--BLOUNTVILLE, Tenn. -- Tri-Cities Regional Airport officials said Wednesday they might have to find someone else to manage their private plane services after two days of mediations with Tri-City Aviation fell through.

"That will be something the [Airport Commission] may have to look at," said Patrick Wilson, the airport's executive director.

Wilson and Tri-City Aviation attorney Jerry Laughlin said Wednesday they could not discuss the negotiations, which happened in January and February, because they signed a confidentiality agreement before the talks started.

The mediation stemmed from discussions Wilson had with airport commissioners in October 2008 about how he thought Tri-City Aviation was failing to meet certain benchmarks in its lease with the airport.

"The commission will need to decide what it will do," Laughlin said, adding that the mediations were designed to let Wilson and the airport staff adjust the terms of the lease or end the agreement all together.

Tri-City Aviation has handled the airport's general aviation services for the past 38 years. Those services account for about 68 percent of the airport's total operations, Wilson told airport commissioners Oct. 14, while outlining his concerns with Tri-City Aviation's performance.

According to the minutes of that meeting, Wilson said the airport's general aviation services dropped by 32 percent from 2002 to October 2008, and the number of aircraft based at the airport's general aviation terminal dropped by about 35 percent during that six-year period.

Wilson also told commissioners that Tri-City Aviation failed to meet several benchmarks in the 15-year lease the two parties signed in 2002.

Among them, Tri-City Aviation agreed to make $750,000 worth of improvements to the terminal by March 2008 but missed that goal by $184,500.

Wilson also said the company failed to spend $30,000 on marketing the airport and its services, and did not file adequate financial reports.

Tri-City also started charging a $50 ramp fee the commission never authorized, Wilson said, adding that many pilots were avoiding the airport because of the fee.

Also at that meeting, Tri-City Aviation owner Donald Carter defended his company and its management of the airport's general aviation terminal. According to the minutes, Carter said Wilson told him to limit the spending on airport improvements to $504,000 but could not say "where that figure came from."

Carter also said Tri-City Aviation's accountant was ill and could not file the financial reports on time. Wilson also blocked Carter's plan to sell his business to a Nashville-based group, Carter told airport commissioners.

Carter then asked commissioners to let him and Wilson settle their differences during a closed-door mediation. Commissioners agreed with the request and on Oct. 23 told Wilson to go ahead with the talks.

According to the minutes of the meeting, Wilson was told to end the airport's relationship with Tri-City Aviation if the two parties could not reach an agreement during the mediations.

On Tuesday, Carter sent a letter to airport commissioners that repeated many of the arguments he brought up Oct. 14 and notified them of his decision to end the negotiations after only two days. Carter also said in the letter that general aviation services across the country had been on a steep decline since Sept. 11 and it was perfectly normal to charge a $50 ramp fee for general aviation flights at a publicly owned airport.

In the letter, Carter asked that airport commissioners give him at least 20 minutes at their Feb. 26 meeting to plead his case further.

Tri-City Aviation staff referred further comment to their attorney.

"We would welcome the opportunity to discuss the resolution of any disagreements we have with them," Laughlin said, adding he hopes to discuss the situation at the commission's next meeting Feb. 26. "Hopefully they will allow us that opportunity."| (276) 645-2518