Decision on local airport operations delayed following objections

By Travis Gulbrandson

The Vermillion City Council tabled a decision of whether to approve a set of minimum standards for operators of commercial activities at the Harold Davidson Field Airport at its regular meeting last week.

The decision was made following objections raised by several local and area businesspeople who use the airport, including issues surrounding fuel sales, insurance and restroom facilities.

Discussion has been moved to the city’s Policies and Procedures Committee for further discussion, at which point it will appear before the council again on March 3.

“My feeling is that maybe some of these folks would just like a chance to give their opinion and some of their expertise, and if they were able to do that, (it) would be at least a step forward, with the idea that it’s very possible that the committee will decide to adopt this as-is,” said council member Kelsey Collier-Wise. “But I think that generally they would feel better having had that discussion with whoever was going to make the decision.”

Dennis Eckert, a resident of Elk Point, private pilot and attorney, spoke on behalf of David Howard of Howard Aviation, and said Howard found a sheet containing the proposed standards at the airport, rather than having one mailed to him.

“It seems like this has been hurried along, and he hasn’t had time to really get into it and understand what’s happening,” Eckert said.

City Manager John Prescott contradicted this, saying, “This (issue) has been presented to the council, as you know, at two different noon meetings, the Nov. 4 meeting and the Dec. 16 meeting. We’ve a couple of different times provided an opportunity.”

In addition, Prescott said Howard has had “numerous discussions” with city representatives over the past six months about this.

“That was one of the ideas or comments of the council following the Dec. 16 meeting, to put copies at the airport so the users can pick it up,” Prescott said. “So that’s exactly what we did, so they could have their own personal copy and not have to request one from the city. We’ve tried to make this information available.

“This is about establishing a fair and level playing field for businesses to come into existence at the airport,” Prescott said. “We want them to be there, we want them to succeed, but we need to make sure that it’s a fair playing field, and that’s why we need a set of minimum standards.”

The move to adopt a set of minimum standards followed a request last year from a user who wanted to become the airport’s Fixed Based Operator (FBO).

“The FBO at an airport provides several services ranging from fueling, aircraft rentals, aircraft maintenance, flight instruction, etc.,” said city engineer José Domínguez.

The city currently does not have minimum standards in place for commercial users, and following conversations with the Federal Aviation Administration and the Department of Transportation it was determined that these standards would need to be in place in order for an FBO to operate.

“Additionally, the FBO would have to run his business from an area with a waiting room, office space and bathrooms,” Domínguez said.

Domínguez added that the FAA’s minimum requirements would affect the city negatively in that it would not allow the city to be the only provider of fuel at the airport. This task would fall to the new FBO.

“This is an issue since the city would likely see a cut on the money generated by the sale of fuel … (which) is used on airport improvements,” he said.

Second, the city would have to construct a sanitary sewer and water line to the hangar where the FBO might be located.

“This project would not receive federal funds since the city already provides bathrooms, open all day every day, to the public,” Domínguez said. “These bathrooms are located in the terminal building.”

The proposed criteria would split all the commercial uses into a two tier system, the first of which involves such activities as aircraft sales, maintenance, rental, pilot training, charter and specialized flight services.

The second tier would be that of the Limited Service Fixed Based Operator (LSFBO), which would need to provide at least two of the commercial activities within tier one.

Domínguez said that Howard had issues with several items.

“These were that the current verbiage in the insurance section was vague, and they would like it to be more detailed; that the city should allow commercial users to sell fuel, as opposed to the city being the only provider; and that the hours of operation section should not be included in the LSFBO section,” Domínguez said.

The standards would require providers to pick up a $1 million insurance policy.

City attorney James McCulloch conceded that the language of the insurance portion could be “tightened up” to use terminology unique to the field of aviation.

“One of the concerns that I have is that the liability coverage that you have also covers airplane accidents,” McCulloch said. “One can only imagine the potential liability for a plane crash in a residential area in the city. The legislature has seen fit to put a cap on damages that can be assessed against a municipality as a result of an airport operation, and it’s capped at $5 million, which is five times more than what we’re asking for here.”

McCulloch said it would be “no problem” if the providers’ insurance reps wanted to talk with the city.

“The only thing is, we’re in a pool, and I don’t think our coverage is going to change at all, and the other concern that I think the users need to realize is that we’re not going to negotiate an agreement on insurances coverages that are uniquely tailored to a specific user, because then it’s not the uniform agreement that you want,” he said. “It’s not something that you want to keep negotiating every time you have a user who wants to do something down there.”

As for fuel, McCulloch said it was “strictly the city’s call.”

Regarding the bathroom issue, the FAA’s default minimum standards are currently in place, he said.

“It doesn’t even look like a septic system can fit in down there based on the configuration of the way things are, so the idea that having a bathroom septic system has been rejected by José,” McCulloch said. “Instead he’s looked at the option of running a sewer line down there, and the cost is very prohibitive for that.

“Really, the only way that Mr. Howard can get to be an FBO, whether it’s a single operator or a limited service operator is to get these minimum standards passed so that he doesn’t have to have a restroom, because then if you’ve got your own standards, the FAA ones don’t apply.”

Prescott told the council there should be a timeframe on the ultimate decision.

“At the end of the day … this is your property, and you as the stewards of the city’s property as the council get to make the decisions and the rules about what happens there,” he said. “It is your property, and like any landlord, you can set certain standards. You want to take your users into account, but they may not like everything that you put together.”

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