Airport operating without FBO

Thu, 12/13/2018 - 7:00pm

Block Island Airport has been without a fixed base operator since the beginning of October.

The former FBO, as they are known, was a company called FlightLevel Aviation, and was responsible for such essential airport functions as parking planes, collecting landing fees, responding to pilot communications, and making sure that planes have been chocked or tied down.

The Rhode Island Airport Corporation, which oversees the state’s five airports, has sent out a request for proposals to find the next FBO for the Block Island Airport, and has a meeting scheduled on Block Island for Friday, Dec. 14 at 1 p.m. at Town Hall to gauge local interest. According to RIAC, the Federal Aviation Administration does not require an FBO at general aviation airports. (The Block Island Times will report on this week’s meeting in the next edition.)

Local pilot Henry duPont has sent out a letter to town and state politicians, stating that the “Block Island Airport, which has been continuously staffed with professional airport services personnel for the last 68 years, had funding for its airport services staff cut by RIAC on Oct. 1. As a result, RIAC’s contracted airport services provider, FlightLevel Aviation, laid off their two airport operations employees and withdrew all contracted airport services from the Block Island State Airport. This leaves a single experienced RIAC airport operations and maintenance employee to run and maintain the state’s second busiest airport (in air passenger deplanements).”

duPont writes that “RIAC has the funds to address these issues.” This is in part because the Block Island Airport had more than 17,000 deplanements in 2016, which entitles the airport to $1 million in funding from the Federal Airport Improvement Program (which the Westerly Airport also receives). That money does not come back to the local airports, said duPont, but instead goes to RIAC.

Making the local airport profitable is more difficult than at other airports because, in part, the Block Island Airport does not offer extensive hangar rental space, nor does it sell fuel, which are significant sources of revenue at other airports.

When asked why the Block Island Airport does not offer fuel, duPont said he simply thinks it is too expensive to set up. There would be special permitting and service areas to be created, he said.

The Block Island Airport is one of two local airports in the state that loses money, the other being Westerly State Airport. According to financial records reported by AvPorts Management, which used to manage the Block Island Airport, the island airport lost $90,430 in 2015.

According to duPont, Westerly Airport lost about $40,000 in 2015; The Newport Airport broke even, while North Central Airport reported a profit of $120,000, and Quonset a profit of $1.2 million.

When asked what it means in terms of practical services that are not being provided at the Block Island Airport due to the lack of an FBO, duPont wrote in his letter that “These funding cuts mean that our airport has no one to answer the radio or the telephone, direct aircraft to parking spaces, collect landing fees, or call a taxi for visiting pilots and their passengers when the RIAC employee is out of the office performing field maintenance, after hours, or on his day off. It also means that the island’s two experienced airport operations employees are out of work until this situation is resolved. The Block Island State Airport is now the only airport in the state of Rhode Island to be without a full-time airport attendant.”

On Tuesday, Dec. 11, there was a clipboard at the Block Island Airport counter with a piece of paper stating the airport was not taking landing fees that day, which was signed by happy non-paying pilots and passengers coming through the airport.

When asked if this was a safety issue, duPont, when speaking to The Times, said “there’s nobody to answer the radio, so when planes are landing they don’t know where to park. Secondly, if it’s busy and the airport is unattended on some days, there’s no one to park the plane. If it’s windy and there’s no one to tie down or give you wheel chocks. God forbid there’s an accident, there’s no one to call emergency services.”

At the Tourism Council meeting on Tuesday, Dec. 11, Executive Director Jessica Willi also brought up the issue of there being no FBO at the airport.

“There’s nobody up there taking landing fees, nobody to do the cleaning, there’s no one there to greet you. There have been complaints from different sections of Block Island and off-island,” she said. 

Tourism Council member John Cullen asked if “the bathrooms get cleaned?”

“They are now,” said Willi, “But they weren’t, and it’s not anywhere it needs to be.” She added that “no one wants to run it because it doesn’t make any money.”

Upon reading the RFP that is being distributed by RIAC, duPont said he did not think that RIAC was looking for a full-fledged FBO for the Block Island Airport.

Under “Services,” the RFP states that RIAC is seeking an operator or individual with a proven capability of providing the following services for Block Island State Airport during normal business hours of 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., seven days a week from April 1 through Sept. 30, and 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days a week for the remainder of the year.

The day-to-day operations include: collection of airport fees; recording aircraft operations (recording aircraft tail number, pilot name, and contact information); aircraft operator assistance (assist with parking locations, respond to aircraft radio call requests, and assist with any other pilot needs); general cleaning and janitorial services (terminal lobby, restrooms, trash removal, hand towel replacement).

The RFP states that the “operator or individual must provide RIAC a minimum of 15 percent of landing and parking fee revenue.” The RFP provides a revenue summary for both rates and revenue for the past several years.

According to duPont, RIAC should not take the stance that “each state Airport should be self-sufficient and stand on its own.” He said, “[T]his position is not defensible because the Rhode Island Airport System is not like a chain of restaurants in which the management can close the non-performing ones… In fact, several of the outlying airports like Quonset State and North Central State are quite profitable, leaving RIAC with more than enough revenue to provide funding for any revenue shortfalls at the Block Island State Airport.”