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Published: Tuesday, 2/25/2014

Dispute takes wing at Express

Port board weighs revisions to business standards

BY DAVID PATCH
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Controversy over which companies can provide ground-handling services for air cargo flights at Toledo’s airports has prompted the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority to consider a revision to its Airport Minimum Standards for businesses.

But Grand Aire Inc., which provides both charter air-cargo service and ground-handling services from its base at Toledo Express Airport, remains skeptical that the port authority’s proposed solution for the issue is fair.

The port authority last week sent an email to Jeffrey Wagner, general counsel for Dallas-based Integrated Airline Services, stating that his firm was authorized to provide services at Toledo Express only to DHL, which has operated cargo flights to and from the local airport since 2011 and uses IAS to load and unload its planes.

That “cease-and-desist” message followed complaints from Grand Aire about IAS’ having loaded or unloaded non-DHL cargo planes in recent weeks — work Grand Aire officials said their firm would otherwise have done for thousands of dollars in revenue.

Port officials agreed during a meeting Monday of the port authority’s airport committee that such a “through-the-fence” operation at Toledo Express — a firm conducting business on the airfield when it has no office or employees there — was improper.

But the proposed change to the agency’s minimum standards would allow such activity if IAS — or any other company offering cargo ground-handling services — signs even a sublease with an existing airport tenant for space at the airport.

The change would specifically add “air cargo ground handling operator” to a list of “special aviation service operators” allowed to conduct business at Express and Toledo Executive Airport — the former Metcalf Field — as long as they comply with the Minimum Standards.

Paul Toth, the port authority’s president, said that category’s absence from the existing list was not meant to exclude such businesses; the list is intended to provide examples of permitted aviation-related businesses, not to be exclusive.

But Jim Renda, Grand Aire’s marketing director, and Katrina Cheema, the company’s chief executive and co-founder, said that competition from IAS would be unfair because the Texas company would not have to maintain the on-airport overhead that Grand Aire incurs with its full-time, around-the-clock operations.

IAS hires part-time workers at minimum wage with no experience required, while Grand Aire’s staff are “full-time aviation professionals,” Mr. Renda told the airport committee.

“We do it right, we do it professionally,” he said. “We don’t think IAS should be allowed to have no stake in the airport, come in, and take this business. We’re not opposed to competition … but it should be a fair playing field.”

Mrs. Cheema said that if business prospects Grand Aire worked to develop at Toledo Express were subject to being poached by other companies, “what is the motivation now” for Grand Aire to continue its efforts to promote itself and the airport.

IAS had no representative at the meeting, and Mr. Wagner did not respond to a request for comment afterward.

Mr. Toth said that if the port authority set its Minimum Standards at such a level as to exclude IAS altogether, a complaint to the Federal Aviation Administration was the likely result.

While Grand Aire’s arguments “are legitimate,” he said, the port authority is obligated to allow fair access to conduct business at the airports, and there is a long history of airport businesses having part-time employees.

“As an airport operator, you’re never right,” Mr. Toth said. “You’re always wrong in this situation, depending on who’s losing.”

Following Monday’s airport committee review, the revised Minimum Standards will be up for discussion and a vote when the port authority’s full board of directors meets at 8 a.m. Thursday in the Port Authority Building.

Contact David Patch at: dpatch@theblade.com or 419-724-6094.



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