RIAC suspends facility fee

Needs to look at other revenue options
Sun, 11/08/2015 - 7:45pm

In what he called the “spirit of collaboration” between the Rhode Island Airport Corporation (RIAC) and Block Island, RIAC President Kelly Fredericks announced on Monday, Nov. 2 that the facility fee that had been implemented at the Block Island Airport would be suspended.

“We’re going to suspend the rate increases and look for other revenue opportunities,” Fredericks said after a one-hour meeting with members of the Block Island business community and town government. The fee had been implemented in October.

The issue came to light after the Block Island Chamber of Commerce notified The Block Island Times about a new fee that pilots were complaining to the Chamber about. It was learned that a $20 facility fee, which was implemented at the Block Island Airport, as well as four other general aviation facilities in the state that are managed by a private corporation called AvPorts of Rhode Island, had been put into place without any kind of formal announcement. It was only when pilots started contacting the Chamber to express frustration over the new fee that it became more generally known.

There was also initial confusion about which organization had approved the fee — AvPorts or RIAC. It was later learned that AvPorts had recommended the fee structure, which was then approved by RIAC, but apparently without a formal vote.

It was this process that was still of some concern to state Rep. Blake Filippi, who attended the meeting. While calling the suspension of the fee “great news,” he also added that “the process and the substance is that this is a decision that the RIAC board should make after public testimony, and it was never voted on by the RIAC board. There has to be a public hearing component to these core managerial decisions, such as raising rates.”

There was some urgency to the situation because pilots were calling the Chamber and writing The Block Island Times saying they would by-pass Block Island in favor of nearby airports — such as Nantucket or Martha’s Vineyard — that did not have a similar fee. Upon hearing that the fee had been suspended, pilot Geoffrey Ring, who lives in New York and is a frequent flyer to Block Island, said “Believe, me, I’m happy, and we will be back again and look forward to all Block Island has to offer.”

The meeting also included state Sen. Susan Sosnowski, Town Manager Nancy Dodge, First Warden Ken Lacoste, and Jessica Willi, Executive Director of the Block Island Tourism Council, as well as representatives from AvPorts.

Willi, who called the Nov. 2 meeting, said, “I think the meeting went very well. I am extremely pleased that RIAC took the time to come to Block Island to meet with us. I was happy to hear some insight on why they (and AvPorts) are looking to raise fees. I feel they were able to shed some light on the situation. I also feel that communication will be key going forward. I am hopeful that we can come up with some solutions that will make everybody happy.”

Dodge said the “meeting was very positive. That Kelly Fredericks came out to meet with us and to suspend the rates, even if it’s just for the interim, is a good thing.”

“I’m very glad they suspended the fee,” said Block Island Chamber of Commerce President Kathy Szabo. Szabo said other revenue producing options at the airport, however, were few. “I don’t know what they can do — we don’t sell fuel, have a pilot’s lounge or a shuttle into town — but they’ll have to do something.”

Fredericks said there will be another meeting “in early December” to decide what the options are for generating more revenue from these general aviation airports, which are, except for the airport in Quonset, operating in the red. According to a report written by Henry duPont, who represents the Block Island State Airport Stakeholders, Fredericks reported that the five state airports were losing $341,000 in fiscal year 2015 compared to a total revenue of a little more than $5.8 million. Adding a combined debt service of more than $2.8 million, “the total losses are even higher,” duPont wrote to describe the economic picture of the five airports as presented by Fredericks.