There may be five voting members of the Charlotte County Airport Authority, but Allegiant Travel Co. has veto power over whether to bring in a private company to operate the airport.
Three out of the five airport commissioners were ready to let the concept of a private operator die Thursday at their monthly meeting. That became apparent when Commissioner James Herston made a motion to further explore the idea of a public-private partnership. Commission Chair Pam Seay had to give up the gavel to second the motion, because no one else would.
Herston asked known skeptic Commissioner Rob Hancik to explain his position. Hancik eventually made a different motion to continue the contract with the consultant that negotiates these deals. Hancik added a key measure to his motion — any of the millions of dollars likely to come from a private investor could only be spent on the airport and not on any project the county puts forward.
The vote was 4-1 in favor of that vote, with Commissioner Kathleen Coppola in opposition.
Consultant Andy Vasey later told the Sun that investment in the airport can be broadly interpreted and could even include investing in Allegiant’s stalled Sunseeker resort.
The vote moves the research forward into whether Punta Gorda Airport would become the third airport in the nation to enter into a public-private partnership. The first was the San Juan Airport in Puerto Rico, which was deeply in debt. The second is the Airglades Airport, a cargo airport in Hendry County, where US Sugar plans a shipping site for South American produce.
During his presentation, Vasey revealed that Punta Gorda Airport’s only commercial airline, Allegiant, has veto power over any contract to introduce a private operator. This is according to regulations set by the Federal Aviation Administration in the 1990s when it first introduced a pilot program to allow such public-private partnerships at airports. Airlines lobbied legislators back then, Vasey told the Sun, to ensure some control. Sixty-five percent of carriers must approve, according to the rules, which gives Allegiant 100% of that vote in Punta Gorda.
Allegiant has been involved in the debate, Vasey said, and has already said it needs assurances that its current agreement with the authority would be extended when it expires in a few years.
Asked about the company’s views on the privatization option, Allegiant Communications Director Hilarie Grey told the Sun, “We’re aware of the discussions of course, but would not want to comment at this early stage.”
But Allegiant can’t force a yes vote. Three commissioners remain skeptics along with several airport tenants at the meeting.
“We’re doing very well financially. Why do we want to try and fix something that isn’t broken?” asked hangar tenant Dick Solar.
“I’m not really sure I want to do this,” Coppola said. “I need more answers.”
“I don’t see how you can get all the answers before you get a proposal,” Herston said.
The authority is still able to back out of the project at this point.
“I want to put the toe in and see how cold the water is,” said Seay.
“Better watch out for sharks,” said Coppola.
Hancik also expressed wariness of outside investors.
“You’re going to be dealing with Wall Street, corporate raiders, big time attorneys,” he said. “We don’t have the expertise for that.”
Vasey has outlined protections for current employees and tenants. The authority would retain ownership of the airport and would have access to financial data from an operator leasing the airport. The authority would also require capital investment to prevent deterioration of facilities.
As to why only one commercial airline airport has chosen this option, Vasey said big airports often have too much debt to be attractive. And political will has sunk plans in other locations, he added.
Many airports in Europe, South America, Asia and Africa operate this way, Seay said. “We’re lagging behind the rest of the world in how it’s done.”