Still Grounded

by Leslie Turk

Lafayette Regional Airport's FBO debacle isn't over yet.

The issue of a new fixed base operator at Lafayette Regional Airport may not be over if the Federal Aviation Administration acts on a complaint filed by current operator Richard Fournet, who alleges discrimination, violation of fiduciary duty and failure to get fair market value for federally-funded property on the part of the airport commission in choosing Million Air as its new FBO. The filing appears to be a last-gasp move by Fournet, who at the Aug. 17 airport commission meeting is expected to be given a 30-day deadline for making $600,000 in repairs, replacement and maintenance on his aging FBO facility or face eviction before his December 2007 lease expires. Paul Fournet Air Service has operated at the airport for more than half a century.

But Fournet's complaint may have merit. Roland Herwig, a spokesman for the FAA, says the "informal complaint" is under review, and the airport commission seems to be making an about-face on the FBO issue. Airport commission Chairman Jim Nunn, who hasn't seen the complaint but acknowledges verbal communication with the FAA, now tells The Independent Weekly that the airport commission will negotiate with anyone wanting to construct an FBO at the airport. "If any party wants to come in and propose a second FBO lease, we will certainly talk with them," Nunn says. He says the airport has available land for development of such facilities, which serve private and corporate aviation interests with a terminal, hangars and other services.

"I'm really taken back by that," says Steve Gardes, Fournet's CPA. "What he is now saying is totally foreign to the public and totally foreign to me. That's not what they told Herbie Schilling." Two months ago, the airport commission refused to entertain an offer from a local group involving Schilling, saying he had come to the table too late ("Turbulence on the Ground," June 7). Technically, at its June 1 meeting the commission refused to reopen the RFP process, as Schilling had requested, but it never indicated that it otherwise would be willing to talk.

The commission decided in late 2004 to enter into exclusive negotiations with a single FBO and in early 2005 voted to hold those negotiations with Million Air, which has been clear that it will only come to Lafayette if it's the sole operator. The airport commission is now in the final stages of a lease agreement with the Cincinnati-based company, which in part calls for it to take over Lafayette Aero, an existing FBO that requested early release from its contract with the airport. Nunn says the Million Air contract is non-exclusive.

The FAA's Herwig says airports that receive federal funding, like Lafayette Regional, cannot have exclusive contracts ' nor can they enter into exclusive negotiations. Herwig was unable to determine before press time whether the airport commission's RFP process legally allows for the kind of negotiations it undertook with Million Air.

The airport commission's study of the profitability of the two existing FBOs led it to conclude that the airport can only support one such facility. Fournet has made the same argument for years. In June, Lafayette Aero's early lease termination cleared the way for Million Air's project.

In its original proposal, Million Air offered to construct a $6 million FBO, and the local group, led by prominent businessmen Wayne Elmore, Mike Poole and Rodney Savoy, proposed a $2 million facility. Gardes claims the local group was at a disadvantage because it was unaware the airport would accept a flat fuel flowage fee, rather than a percentage of the escalating current prices, which would have led the local businessmen to offer a bigger capital improvement project. "We were under the impression that the fuel flowage fee structure was a sacred cow," he says. The new Million Air contract calls for it to pay the airport a flat fee per gallon, which could amount to several million dollars less than the local group over the 30-year lease period.

Fournet claims the commission favored Million Air from the beginning over his group. The airport commission did accept a new, detailed proposal from Million Air two days after the March 30, 2005, deadline. Somewhere in the ensuing lengthy negotiation process the $6 million capital improvement was lowered, and shockingly, the current lease has no stipulation for how much money Million Air will invest in the facility. Nunn, who confirms the lease still needs a couple of signatures to be finalized, says the commission has concentrated on the size of the facility and services offered.

For months Fournet and other local businessmen have pleaded with the commission to reopen what they call a "tainted" process, but the commission stuck with its decision to negotiate exclusively with Million Air. On June 29, Fournet submitted a proposal for a $6 million facility, to be constructed by Paul Fournet Air Service and/or Lafayette FBO Investor Group. (He says he would be willing to step aside for the local group "in light of [the commission's] apparent disdain for PFAS.") The airport commission again refused to even consider the offer. Says Nunn, "We did not view that letter as a viable offer, considering that Richard still owes the airport over $600,000."