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Termination talk
Airport operator mad city may end contract early

COVINGTON - The head of Dixie Jet Service Inc., fixed base operator at Covington Municipal Airport, is on the defensive now that city officials are considering early termination of his contract.

Bob Riddell, president of Dixie Jet, doing business as Atlanta East Aviation, said he wants to make sure the public realizes his company's investment and the growth it has fostered at the airport. Riddell said the latest move by city officials toward terminating a contract that does not expire until 2019 is a declaration of war in his eyes.

"They've fired a shot across the bow before. Now they've declared war on us. We didn't declare it on them. They may win the battle, but they won't win the war because this guy does not know the word quit," he said.

Riddell said he's sat silently through many struggles with city officials in the past, but now that his livelihood is at stake, he's speaking out.

Initially, city officials said Dixie Jet had breached its contract by letting its insurance lapse. But after discovering insurance was reinstated within the deadline stated in the contract, City Manager Steve Horton advised the council it would not be appropriate to terminate the contract for that reason.

The council then decided to research early termination of the contract so that it can be in a better position to control economic development there and bring to fruition projects that have been proposed in the Airport Layout Plan and the city's Capital Improvements Plan, Mayor Kim Carter said.

In addition to the

rehabilitation of the runway that is under way, those projects include paving additional taxiways and relocating the fuel farm to the southeast side of the airport, constructing a new terminal building and new hangers and moving the entrance to the airport to the southeast side near Nisshinbo. The city has purchased 100 additional acres in recent years to accomplish those plans.

"We have invested a lot of money and time, and we feel like we would be in a better position to control our growth rather than leaving it up to a third party," Carter previously told the Citizen.

But Riddell said he's invested plenty, too.

Dixie Jet has been the airport FBO since 1994. The city owns the airport and leases 7.5 acres to the FBO. Customers rent tie-down space or land for hangars, which they pay to construct, from the FBO.

Riddell purchased the company in 2001. Since that time, he estimates his investment at $2.8 million. The $527,000 quote by city officials as his investment is only 75 percent of the initial investment, or the amount he was loaned from the bank, to build the current FBO building, he said.

Since that time, in addition to constructing the main building that includes a flight school classroom, staff offices and a conference room and making improvements to the attached maintenance hangar, Dixie Jet has funded construction of a new parking lot, a golf cart to transport passengers and baggage and a $38,000 courtesy car to transport and pick up passengers at hotels and loan to pilots while they are in town.

Dixie Jet has also funded a self-service fuel unit to allow pilots to get fuel 24 hours a day and purchased two fuel trucks, Riddell said.

Dixie Jet has successfully helped grow the airport and generate tax dollars, he said.

The number of hangars has increased from five to 16 and the number of aircraft based there from 15 to 85.

In addition, the flight school there exceeds the requirements laid out in the contract with the city, which mandates two flight instructors and two aircraft for rent. Manager Rusty Anglin said they have four flight instructors and three aircraft for rent.

Currently, there are seven corporate planes housed at the airport, and there have been as many as a dozen in the past, Anglin said.

"We've done all the hard work and all the heavy lifting and now they want to take it," Riddell said.

"I think the city's got dollar signs in their eyes. They think they're going to make a killing. The city needs to concentrate on bringing business to the airport ... They need to be growing the economy. They don't need to be trying to take over a man's FBO that he's invested his life savings in," he said.

Bringing in more corporate customers to build hangars and add to the city's tax and job base is the best way to grow the airport, Riddell said. But as far as running it, he believes the city is out of its league.

He questioned the wisdom of constructing a terminal building, which he said typically sits empty, aside from the occasional customer who may venture inside to use the restroom.

Customers expect fuel, maintenance, parts, experienced personnel, good service and clean facilities, he said.

"They don't want a showplace," he said.

But more importantly, Riddell said, what will happen if the city's plans fall through?

"The taxpayers are going to have to take over and subsidize whatever they can't produce in revenue," he said.

He also questioned how the city will maintain the level of service he's spent eight years building, including a staff with a combined 150 years of aviation experience.

Riddell and Anglin are the only staff remaining, aside from an intern. The other 12 employees have been laid off because the runway is closed for rehabilitation for the third time in as many years. Anglin and Riddell both say they aren't earning a paycheck right now because there are no revenues coming in. But they've been through this before: During the runway expansion in 2006, Dixie Jet took out a $350,000 loan to stay afloat.

For Riddell, terminating his contract now would add insult to injury.

He claims that illegal flight schools, charter services and commercial maintenance operations have been run out of the airport for years, in violation of FAA regulations and lease agreements with Dixie Jet. The result has been that Dixie Jet is competing against its own customers, Riddell said.

He alleged city officials have turned a deaf ear to complaints and even supported the violators. Riddell said he's asked for guidelines to be put into place regulating that kind of activity to no avail. Dixie Jet developed its own guidelines based on federal regulations and city ordinances, but nothing came of it, he said.

Carter and Horton could not be reached for comment Tuesday afternoon.

Riddell said he's been quiet through all of the turmoil, but now feels the need to fight for his business. If there are complaints about Dixie Jet's service, they should be brought to the forefront, he said.

"Something is amiss. We've been a good operator," he said, adding that he is polling Dixie Jet customers to prove that.

If the city decides to terminate its contract with Dixie Jet, a 90-day notification is required, in addition to a termination fee.

Dixie Jet's attorney and the city attorney are working to determine the amount of that fee.

Carter has said the future of operations at the airport hasn't been decided.

"Whether the city will ultimately run the airport, we don't know. We are investigating having some sort of authority run the airport with membership from the city and county," she said.

Crystal Tatum can be reached at crystal.tatum@newtoncitizen.com.