Business Pilots Protest New Fees at Fernandina Airport

FERNANDINA BEACH - Pilots are voicing opposition to a proposal to charge commercial user fees for the first time at the Fernandina Beach Municipal Airport.

Pilots who attended the City Commission meeting Tuesday strongly objected to the new fees proposed primarily for commercial operators, including flight instructors, mechanics and others who provide services to airport customers, such as limousine drivers and plane detailers.

Airport Manager Richard Johnson is asking commissioners to approve a $450 annual commercial aviation permit to use the airport for any business purpose. The fees will help pay for improvements at the airport instead of using city funds, he said Tuesday.

The proposal also prorates the fees, including $60 for use of the airport for any part of or a whole month.

Non-local pilots also would be charged fees. Fees cannot be charged for touch-and-go landings by out-of-town pilots or flight instructors, but private planes coming into the airport, for example ones carrying passengers who are staying at the Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island or the Amelia Island Plantation, would be charged under the proposal.

The proposal also requires commercial entities to carry worker's compensation and liability insurance.

Fees also would be charged for banner pickup, balloon and blimp mooring, and any limousine service pulling onto airport property.

The proposal also calls for storage fees, parking fees for cars or RVs left more than 30 days and aircraft tie-downs for the city-owned ramp parking area.

Johnson told commissioners Fernandina Beach's airport fees and rents generally were below what other general aviation airports in the area charge.

"Now the tenants pay nothing other than to store their plane," Johnson said. "All users of the airport should contribute to the success of the airport."

Johnson estimated the proposed fees would generate $45,000 to $60,000 in revenue in the first year.

Pilots who spoke Tuesday, however, said those new fees would hurt them.

Gordon Reilly, a flight instructor at the airport, said he doesn't charge most people for flight instruction.

"Most instruction I've given has been at no charge," Reilly said. "I've given free services to the Civil Air Patrol and Camden County Sheriff's Office. What I charge for is flight reviews, which are required of pilots every two years. That covers my costs."

Chris Koppel, a pilot who leases a hangar at the airport, said members of the aviation community help each other.

"If I have a mechanic that works on my plane and he has to pay $450 a year to do that, either he won't or I can't fly my airplane safely. That is dangerous to me and the community," Koppel said.

Richard Kendall, a retired American Airlines pilot, flies his plane with Angel Flights Southeast, an organization that arranges emergency flights for cancer patients, ill children and beaten or abused women to shelters or hospitals. He does not charge for his services.

"If these fees are put into place, I'll either have to move my airplane or sell it," Kendall said.

City Manager Michael Czymbor said pilots doing charity work would not be charged.

Jack Healan, president of Amelia Island Co. and a pilot and leaseholder at the airport, said the proposal may violate assurances the city made to obtain Federal Aviation Administration grants and may make the airport too costly to those who use it most - small operators, most of whom are retired and not wealthy.

Commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday to delay any action on the proposed fees until they could have a workshop to discuss all city enterprise funds, including the airport's. Those funds were set up in the early 1990s to make income-producing city entities such as the airport, marina and golf course, self-sufficient.

In recent years, city funds have had to be loaned to the enterprise funds, including the airport, because fund revenues were not enough to pay for needed maintenance and rehabilitation projects.

The workshop has not been scheduled yet.

, (904) 261-7606, ext. 6353.