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Avion to cut airport ties in Sandusky County

FREMONT - For the second time this month, a Michigan-based aviation firm is ending operations at one of the region's airports.

Avion Management Services will turn over control of the Sandusky County Regional Airport when its management contract expires May 31, Anne Esposito, Avion president, said yesterday.

The company is negotiating with the Sandusky County airport authority to end its contract as the facility's fixed-based operator and possibly lease the terminal and other buildings to the county.

Last week, Avion ended its pact to manage the Erie-Ottawa Regional Airport and provide charter services, withdrawing from the facility near Port Clinton after eight months of a five-year lease.

The Sandusky County airport, which opened in July, 1999, has been plagued by slow business, and county officials have criticized Avion's marketing efforts. Several months ago, the airport authority cut the monthly management fee it paid Avion from $7,000 to $5,000.

The airport authority board is to meet at 5 p.m. today to possibly consider an agreement with Avion.

Mrs. Esposito said the company, which invested about $1.5 million to build a terminal and 10 T-hangars, is asking for $6,000 a month to lease those facilities to the airport board. Avion also is interested in selling the buildings.

“We are trying to calmly and amicably work out a deal with the board,” she said. “Most of the board members dislike us so much they just want us out of there. And that's OK, because there's not too much business out there anyway.”

Mrs. Esposito said Avion lost about $40,000 last year from its operations at the airport in Green Creek Township and about $15,000 so far this year.

The airport authority hired Avion, of Troy, Mich., to run the airport in December, 1998. Construction of the $8 million airport, funded mainly by federal grants, finished seven months later. But while the airport's fuel sales and flight instruction program did a healthy business, hangar rental and charter service lagged.

Mrs. Esposito said the airport authority failed to provide the support - financial and otherwise - needed for the facility to succeed.

“We have two or three pilots on the board, and they keep their planes at the other airport, the privately owned airport in Fremont,” she said. “This is a public, municipally owned airport. Somebody other than us should be supporting it.”

Tom Kern, a member of the airport authority who is negotiating with Avion, could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Bradley Smith, a Sandusky County commissioner, said he supports the airport authority's actions. “I think they deserve credit for stepping up to the plate and addressing a bad situation before it got worse.”

Mr. Smith said the airport has been burdened by unrealistic expectations.

“I think Avion did do some marketing in some niche areas. ... They were successful in aircraft rental and pilot training,” he said. “But I think with what they were being paid, that we should have gotten more for our money.”

The airport was built on the premise that it would be self-supporting, Mr. Smith said. The commissioners at the time vowed that no tax dollars would be used to fund it, and the current board plans to keep that promise.

At the Erie-Ottawa airport, Mrs. Esposito said Avion was hurt by strained relations with the Put-in-Bay Township Port Authority and by islander anger over a $1 parking fee imposed by the Portage Township airport last fall.

Avion halted use of 9-seat Caravan turboprop planes in February when the port authority banned the company from loading and unloading the aircraft with the engine running. In addition, Avion disputed the port authority's demand for more than $3,000 in operator fees.

Besides island residents' anger over the parking fee, many favored Griffing Flying Service, which offers on-demand service between Sandusky and the Bass islands, Mrs. Esposito said.

“Because the islanders took it personally, they boycotted our business and they blamed us for what the airport authority did,” she said.

She estimated that the company lost about $80,000 in its eight-month stint at the Erie-Ottawa Regional Airport.

Monica Drake, executive director of the Put-in-Bay Port Authority, said the agency has referred the operator-fee dispute to its attorney.

“We had different views on one issue,” she said. “I had no personal feeling other than being helpful. We enjoyed working with their pilots very much.”

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