Airport tenant files federal complaint against GFIA board

November 20, 2011
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A longtime tenant of the Gerald R. Ford International Airport revealed last week that it has filed a formal complaint with the Federal Aviation Administration against the Kent County Aeronautics Board, charging the panel with violating the airport’s 2004 master plan.

If the FFA agrees with the complaint filed by Northern Air and Northern Jet Management, the airport reportedly stands to lose tens of millions of federal dollars.

“By voting to disregard the airport’s minimum standards, the airport’s master plan and the airport’s layout plans, the board engaged in what our New York and local attorneys strongly believe to be unjustified discriminatory conduct,” Chuck Cox, CEO of both firms, told county commissioners last week.

Cox was referring to a vote the aeronautics board took last May.

“They voted to allow Executive Air to build a fixed-base operation, or FBO, in an area that the airport master plan currently designates for use by private corporate operations,” said Cox. Executive Air Transport Inc. is based in Muskegon, where it provides on-demand air charter service for freight and business travelers, and would operate under the name Rothbury Executive Air at GFIA. The firm would maintain its presence in Muskegon.

Cox said airport staff made a recommendation to the aeronautics board not to allow Executive Air to build in that sector of the airport, yet the panel approved the move. “This ill-advised vote by the board changes the rules in the middle of the game and favors a new business over an existing business,” said Cox, whose firms have been located at the airport for over four decades.

“By ignoring and nullifying its own master plan, the board shakes the very foundation of all present and future planning for everyone doing business at the airport,” he added. “After our attempts to have meaningful dialog with the board were rejected, Northern Air has filed an FAA Part 16 complaint with the FAA.”

A Part 16 complaint is formal, while a Part 13 is informal.

The May meeting was a special meeting dedicated to Rothbury Executive Air’s request for a waiver and variance to build in the area set aside in the master plan for corporate hangers. Company President Rex Vanderlinde told board members that his firm would make an investment of $5 million at GFIA and pay the airport $155,000 in rent and fuel fees annually.

In addition to Northern Air, Grand Rapids Air Center, another GFIA tenant, spoke against issuing Rothbury Executive Air the two waivers and one variance it requested.

The aeronautics board granted the request by a vote of 4 to 2. Supporting the request were Floyd Wilson, Terri Lynn Land, Roger Morgan and board chairman Joseph Tomaselli. Dick Vander Molen and Ted Vonk cast the “no” votes. Morgan, Vander Molen and Vonk are county commissioners; none responded publically to Northern Air’s complaint at last week’s meeting.

Commissioner Jim Talen asked county administration to provide the commission with more information on the issue.

Cox said he felt the FAA would respond favorably to the complaint because it is “well-substantiated and based on documented evidence” from the board’s “own actions and meeting minutes.”

“If the airport continues on this course and signs a lease with Executive Air, it opens a legal can of worms,” said Cox. “The result? A financial catastrophe for the airport.”

Cox said one penalty the airport could face if the lease is signed and the FAA upholds Northern Air’s complaint is the agency could withhold all of its future funding for the airport. He pointed out that the FAA provides about 95 percent of every dollar the airport spends on airside capital improvements, such as tarmacs.

“The airport’s 2013 five-year capital plan calls for this funding to exceed $43 million, which would be at risk,” said Cox. The FAA’s share of that total would roughly be $41 million.

Northern also owns The Company Jet, also located at GFIA. The Northern companies have been at the airport since 1963 and have 110 full- and part-time employees.

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