At their Tuesday morning meeting, county commissioners agreed to slash in half for the next six months the monthly lease payment paid to the county by CrystalAir, the fixed base operator at Apalachicola Regional Airport.
Commissioner Pinki Jackel moved to reduce CrystalAir’s rent from $5,000 monthly to $2,500 for six months, and require the county be paid three cents for every gallon of gas sold. The motion passed 4-1, with Commissioner Noah Lockley opposed.
Jason Puckett, spokesman for the FBO, told commissioners fuel sales the airport have been less than expected since CrystalAir took over in Oct. 2012. He said records reviewed at the time the lease was signed were misleading.
“Not a lot of folks make a fuel stop here on their way to somewhere else,” he said. “We have tried to market (the airport) with tourism. All we’re asking is that you make it equitable and fair.”
Puckett said the airport had gotten a reputation for poor service in the past that his firm is fighting to overcome. He said CrystalAir is making progress toward improving customer relations.
Commissioner Smokey Parrish said he was surprised to learn that annual fuels sales of $60,000 only covered the cost of the annual lease. He said the sluggish economy played a role in the lack of business at the airport. He said much of the business community was concerned the airport remain open.
Puckett said there are problems renting the existing hangers to generate additional income, referring to a large county-owned hanger that has remained largely empty since it was constructed a few years ago.
“If that corporate hanger was in my hometown of Thomasville (Ga.), it would be rented,” Puckett said. “There’s not much industry of that size here, yet.”
Commissioner Noah Lockley asked why CrystalAir had run out of fuel over Memorial Day weekend this year. “That was a perfect storm,” Puckett said. “Nobody wanted to have fuel available more than we did.”
He said military vehicles employed during Project Emerald Warrior consumed an unexpected amount of gas, leaving the airport short of fuel, and that a family emergency had left the normal fuel provider unable to make a delivery on short notice.
He said CrystalAir had posted the shortage online to avoid inconveniencing pilots. “I think we handled it very efficiently,” he said.
Puckett said CrystalAir plans to cut staff to reduce costs but has an aircraft mechanic on call 24-hours daily.
Commissioner Pinki Jackel asked if fuel at the airport is competitively priced. Puckett said it was, but Alan Feifer, a pilot, disagreed. He said fuel at the airport is priced at $5.60 a gallon while fuel in Quincy is $4.90.
Feifer said the airport is not being marketed effectively. He said it is not advertised in aviation magazines or at online websites for pilots. He said traffic at the airport has dropped by 50 percent over the last 10 years.
“Marketing is what’s missing,” said Feifer.
Puckett said comparing the two airports was “like apples and oranges” because Quincy is an unattended airport.
Feifer said service at Apalachicola’s airport is excellent “but you’re going to run into a pricing issue with most people.”
Jackel said that “if you’re going to have a 70-cent difference in price you need to make adjustments.”
She suggested people might be happy to pump their own gas to pay less. Puckett said most visitors to the Apalachicola airport are well-to-do and expect service.
“I would never pump my own gas,” he said.