CLEARWATER — A lawsuit says that the problems at private-plane provider Avantair go beyond concerns about safety procedures and airplane parts. A customer who joined the service just six months ago said Avantair repeatedly failed to provide him with the services he paid for.
The Polk County businessman who filed the lawsuit this week in Pinellas-Pasco circuit court is one of the pioneers of the Republican Party of Florida: C.C. "Doc" Dockery, the husband of former state Sen. Paula Dockery.
Dockery said he signed a contract with Avantair on Jan. 16 and agreed to pay $110,725 for 30 hours of flight time on its fractional jet service.
He joined Avantair as the company was dealing with the fallout from an incident last summer: a left elevator fell off one of its planes during a West Coast flight. By October, the company decided to ground its fleet of nearly 60 aircraft at its St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport headquarters. Avantair hired safety experts to inspect each aircraft, and review its maintenance and safety procedures and records.
Avantair returned to the skies, but grounded its fleet a second time on June 7 because of a potential issue involving the monitoring and replacement of time-sensitive airplane parts.
A spokesman for Avantair said the company doesn't comment on pending litigation. The spokesman also could not update the status of the company's planes. St. Pete-Clearwater International said the company has not started flying again.
Dockery's lawsuit, however, focused on the company's day-to-day business practices.
According to his suit, the contract Dockery signed says that if Avantair cannot provide a private plane, than the company is responsible for "reasonable efforts to charter at no additional cost" another private plane and crew for the customer.
The lawsuit also said that under the contract, Avantair could modify takeoff times within two hours of the original takeoff time, but must give the customer 12 hours notice.
But then in March, according to Dockery, Avantair tried to rewrite its own contract. The suit cited a March 21 statement from Avantair CEO David Haslett saying that customers should start booking flights as soon as possible to avoid delays as the company gets its planes back in the air, and that Avantair would no longer charter replacement flights for its customers.
Avantair cannot "unilaterally modify the terms" of the contract, the lawsuit said, "by stating it will not charter aircraft and seeking to establish a first-come, first-served scheduling approach in direct contradiction" of the contract.
Dockery's lawsuit accused the company of "repeatedly" breaking the contract. The suit listed three dates — March 20, May 15 and May 23 — when Avantair changed the flight times beyond the two-hour window without the 12-hour notice required in the contract.
Dockery said the company pushed back his takeoff times by up to three, four, five and even nine hours, and during one flight pushed back the flight time twice.
When Dockery tried to schedule a flight on June 1, the lawsuit Avantair wouldn't provide him with a plane — and the company refused to book him another private flight.
Instead, the suit said, a company official offered to help Dockery gather quotes from other charter companies, but told him that he would have to book the flight himself.
Dockery said he still has 21.6 flight hours left with Avantair at a cost of $79,722. That's the amount he is seeking in the civil suit.
He declined to comment on Friday.
Jamal Thalji can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3404.