Aviation customers will soon have a different experience at the Covington Municipal Airport, following the Covington City Council’s 3-2 vote Wednesday to end its contract with airport operator Dixie Jet Services.
After months of discussion, a fuel shortage last week at the facility was a deciding factor for the council, which voted to exercise the early termination clause in its contract with Dixie Jet.
Councilman Chris Smith made the motion for early termination and was supported by council members Keith Dalton and Ocie Franklin, while council members Janet Goodman and Hawnethia Williams opposed the motion. Councilman Mike Whatley was absent.
At a July 28 work session, the council unanimously agreed to give Dixie Jet Owner Bob Riddell another chance, but cautioned that more hiccups would not be tolerated.
The city is ending the contract 10 years into the 20-year agreement. According to City Attorney Ed Crudup, the city will be required to pay Dixie Jet $367,389.33. According to the contract, Dixie Jet has 90 days to vacate its location and will continue to run the airport during that time. Horton said Crudup was filing an official letter of intent to terminate agreement with both the FBO and the bank, and the 90 day-period will start upon receipt of that letter.
Dixie Jet won’t contest decision
Riddell and Dixie Jet Manager Rusty Anglin were asked to be in attendance, but were absent from the meeting. Riddell said Thursday that he knew the mayor and council would eventually vote him out, and he didn’t want to dignify them with his presence.
Riddell has contested the amortized payout in the past, claiming that he’s invested additional money since the contract was signed, but the city contends that he didn’t go through the proper channels to have that investment recorded.
Riddell said he’s too poor to hire legal counsel and will not pursue a lawsuit against the city. However, he speculated that since he has around $1.1 million worth of debt, creditors might be inclined to challenge the city’s claim to some of the investment.
"If they only pay the $367,000, I say that would be a slap in my face, just like they’ve done to us all this time. They’re so used to running roughshod over people they don’t know the difference any more. We’ve fought the good fight, and we’re going to continue to give our customers good service (during the next 90 days)," Riddell said.
Pilots speak out
Don Young of Standridge Color Corporation’s aviation department told the council that he experienced about five fuel service problems in two years. Last week, Standridge had to go elsewhere to buy fuel, costing it an extra $1,900. Young said he only needed 120 gallons at the time, but Anglin told him Dixie Jet was out of Jet A fuel, despite the fact the 10,000 gallon fuel tank was operational.
Airport Advisory Committee Chairman Lance Flynn said he’s heard complaints from several other hangar owners.
"It’s always something," Flynn said. "It’s a concern. We just don’t know what is going to be available. Like Don has had to do, we’ve tanked fuel, which means we buy it somewhere else and fly (our planes) less efficiently because we carry more weight than we need to, because we just don’t know if (fuel is) going to be there the next morning."
Alan Duval, who hangars two planes with Dixie Jet as part of his Covington Aviation company, was pleased with the council decision.
"I commend the city council for that decision; I personally think it’s long overdue," he said Thursday.
Emory Geiger, a pilot who’s owned a hanger for five years, said he’s looking forward to seeing if the city can improve the airport’s operation, and is encouraged by the change that’s already occurred since Airport Engineer Vincent Passariello was hired more than a month ago.
"That airport is not Hartsfield; it’s not rocket science to run it," Geiger said. "I feel the city had given Riddell a lot of slack and opportunities to improve. I never saw any promotion at the airport, just some blurbs on a few websites. There was no community interaction."
City Manager Steve Horton, who is also the airport manager, expressed reservations during Wednesday’s meeting about severing the city’s relationship with Dixie Jet, despite the problems. He asked the council if they felt there was no other alternative. Smith and Dalton said that Dixie Jet had been given enough chances to succeed.
Goodman voted against early termination. She said afterward she didn’t feel right about terminating the contract, and both she and Williams expressed concern about airport management in the future.
Horton said Thursday no steps have been taken yet, besides a brainstorming session with Passariello, but a transition and operations plan will be created.
The city could hire another third party to operate the airport or it may have a working plan by that time for a Covington Municipal Airport Authority. Mayor Kim Carter said the city is still determining how it wants the authority to operate and added she’s received several resumes from the public.
Riddell said city employees asked him Thursday if the city could help with services during the next 90 days, but Riddell declined the offer.
"I said, ‘I’m only interested in protecting myself and my clients.’ I felt they were trying to see if the city could take it early," Riddell said.
Dixie Jet will continue to be in charge of purchasing fuel, but the city will step in if needed, Horton said Wednesday.