As airlines cut back, airports have the potential to replace them as service providers in areas like baggage handling and fuel supply.
But tax-funded U.S. airports are governed by strict federal airport revenue-diversion rules, which prohibit them from entering joint venture partnerships or being stockholders in an organization unless they completely control that organization.
"Airports are mainly enterprise functions," said Fred Piccolo, president and CEO of the Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport. "You can't divert revenue to another entity. It has to have an airport purpose."
Airports in Jacksonville and Houston have managed to cut through the red tape, providing services through subsidiary organizations operating under the umbrella of the airport's governing body.
Now, local airport officials hope they can get the rules changed so they can enter joint venture partnerships to provide services that could enhance revenue.
A local legislative delegation agreed, voting Thursday to take a proposed bill to Tallahassee that could change airport revenue-diversion rules.
"If all of them think it's a good idea, it's a positive step in getting this changed," Piccolo said.
Possible revenue sources could include parking, consulting services and property management.
Dan Bailey, counsel for the Airport Authority, pointed to Sarasota County Public Hospital as an example of similar public-private partnerships working in other industries.
The hospital has created subsidiaries to provide employee leasing, laundry services and outpatient diagnostic services, Bailey said in a letter to U.S. Sen. Lesley Miller.
If approved, the bill would grant the local Airport Authority "similar powers, enabling it to create corporations, limited liability companies . . . and provide these organizations with the financial assistance needed to carry out the authority's public purposes," Bailey said.
Revenue from such entities would allow the airport to build up a reserve for attracting other airlines such as JetBlue Airways, said "I can't think of a reason why anyone would object," Waechter said. "The airport doesn't go out and compete with private business," said Bob Waechter, chairman of the Sarasota Manatee Airport Authority.
"I can't think of a reason why anyone would object," Waechter said. "The airport doesn't go out and compete with private business."
Aircraft Service International Group provides commercial fueling at the airport, operating a fuel farm with three 30,000-gallon fuel tanks.
The company is in negotiations with the airport to extend its lease to 2008.
"If they were going to set up their own fuel operation, that would be in competition with us," said Debbie Angell, general manager of Aircraft Service International.
Having been at the airport since 1977, her company would be a likely prospective partner, she said.
If the airport did decide to start its own fuel farm, it would issue a request for proposals for an operator, said Martin Lange, CFO and vice president of the airport.
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