Duluth Airport Seeks to Replace Operator

After 20 years of unbroken service to Duluth International Airport, North Country Aviation Inc. soon could be replaced.

North Country is the airport's fixed base operator -- more commonly known as an FBO in aviation circles. It plays a central role in the airport's day-to-day operations, supplying fuel to aircraft, providing maintenance services, offering flight instruction, deicing airplanes, renting hangar space and catering to the needs of general aviation pilots.

"Our FBO is a critical partner," said Brian Ryks, executive director of the Duluth Airport Authority. He said the FBO provides services essential to those who use the airport.

North Country also generates revenue for the airport through lease payments and a percentage of concessions it shares, per the terms of its contract. The airport authority annually collects about $90,000 from North Country.

But Ryks said those payments are relatively modest when compared with what FBOs pay elsewhere.

"Airports of similar size to Duluth typically receive 2 times that," Ryks said.

Although final details of an agreement with Monaco Aviation LLC, the company poised to replace North Country, still are being hammered out, Ryks said the new contract will bring fees in line with those found in other markets.

On Monday, the Duluth City Council will act on a resolution that authorizes the airport authority to buy out the remaining 18 years of North Country's contract to serve the airport. Under a proposed agreement, North Country would receive $497,000 from the airport authority.

Thanks to higher fees under a prospective agreement with Monaco, Ryks expects the airport authority will recoup its money and then some.

Assuming the City Council approves the airport authority's involvement in the deal, Ryks said Monaco could come on board as Duluth International's new FBO in November.

The deal also involves the sale of North Country's facilities to Monaco, but details of the transaction have not been made public.

Neil Mathison, president of North Country, did not return phone calls seeking comment on the pending deal.

Don Monaco, the Chicago-area businessman who founded and runs Monaco Aviation, also declined to discuss the prospective acquisition of North Country's facilities in Duluth or his plans for their future operation.

Monaco was at least somewhat familiar with Duluth prior to becoming interested in its FBO. He owns an airplane built by Duluth-based Cirrus Design Corp.

Ryks said Mathison, 61, had expressed a willingness to consider retiring and selling his business, and the airport authority has been working to help forge a deal for about a year.

At times, relations between North Country and some of Duluth's most significant airport users have been strained.

Dissatisfied with the service it was receiving from North Country, Cirrus Design chose to install its own fueling system.

"We would have preferred not to have had to install our own fueling operation," said Bill King, Cirrus' vice president of business administration. But he said that North Country couldn't deliver the kind of timely service his company needed.

North Country occasionally butted heads with Northwest Airlines as well. A dispute over the bankrupt airline's methods of payment recently forced Northwest jets flying between Duluth and Detroit to make an unscheduled stop in central Wisconsin to take on fuel.

Fearing a disruption in commercial air service to Duluth, Ryks scrambled to broker an agreement between North Country and Northwest and managed to do just that.

At an Airport Authority meeting earlier this week, Ryks expressed confidence that Monaco will work hard to strengthen relations with Cirrus and others.

"I told Don (Monaco), 'I don't want FedEx, Northwest and Cirrus coming to me and complaining about your operation,' " Ryks said. "And he told me, if that were the case, he'd have no place being in business."

King said Cirrus remains open to expanding its relationship with the Duluth FBO under new ownership.

"We may well use the FBO for fueling once again, because 100 low-lead won't be our only fuel in the future," King said, hinting at a new generation of airplanes.

Ryks also is encouraged that Monaco is interested in investing in new facilities at Duluth International. He said there's a proposal in progress to build a new general aviation arrival facility on the north-south runway.

Rob West, CEO of the Area Partnership for Economic Expansion, said such a facility would be an asset, particularly because many businesspeople fly into the area aboard private aircraft.

"We want to put our right foot forward," West said, describing the facility as the first impression many visitors will have of Duluth. "Giving people the right perception that this is a vital, exciting and growing community is a very good thing."

Ryks said if sufficient money can be found and Monaco remains supportive of efforts, a new general aviation facility could be operating by 2007.

Duluth News Tribune

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