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St. Petersburg selects new manager for Albert Whitted Airport

A fleet of pilots parachuted into City Hall on Thursday in an effort to block the hiring a new firm to manage Albert Whitted Airport.

Nearly 20 pilots, business operators and residents urged the City Council to reject Mayor Bill Foster's proposal to replace locally based Bay Air Flying Service with Sheltair Aviation Services of Fort Lauderdale.

The barrage didn't work.

The City Council voted 6-2 to allow officials to negotiate a contract with Sheltair to manage the city-owned airport. The measure likely will end St. Petersburg's 30-year relationship with Bay Air and its owner, Ron Methot.

Council members Jeff Danner and Karl Nurse cast the dissenting votes.

Bay Air pays the city about $600,000 a year. St. Petersburg will seek the same amount from Sheltair, said Dave Metz, the city's downtown facilities director.

Sheltair, a fixed-based operator with 350 employees, manages 14 other airports in New York, Georgia and Florida, including St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport. The firm has been developing aviation facilities since 1985 in Florida.

Sheltair will improve Albert Whitted by attracting customers from airports in other states and advertising in an international marketing program that includes flight publication and trade shows, according to a city memo.

The city will negotiate in the coming weeks so the council can vote on whether to approve the contract on Oct. 18. The firm could take over Nov. 1.

Foster touted Sheltair for improving airports and its emphasis on customer service and property management. He also said he ranked Bay Air second out of six firms seeking the work.

"This was a wise decision," Foster said. "One (firm) clearly rose to the top."

Critics contended that Bay Air's 30 employees would lose their jobs and that pilots would pay higher fuel prices with Sheltair.

Tom Petrillo, president and CEO of Aveda Institute, said he checked fuel prices at other airports and predicted he would lose money by buying fuel from Sheltair.

"There is a $200,000 cost to my company if this goes through," Petrillo said.

Pilot and flight instructor Jack Tunstill said Sheltair lacks experience running small airports, adding: "The mix at Whitted is not St. Pete International."

The pleas didn't go unnoticed.

Airport customers made their case to keep Bay Air, Danner said, adding: "The users want (Bay Air) to stay there."

Sheltair officials told the council that Bay Air workers can apply to keep their jobs.

Tom Craft, a regional vice president who oversees the firm's operations in Clearwater, Daytona Beach and Orlando, said he understands the concerns from pilots about fuel.

Prices, he said, will likely be cheaper at Whitted because it is not a commercial airport with higher expenses. In takeovers at other airports, many workers remained employed, he added.

"We are a small family company," Craft said.

The city sought a new operator after Methot racked up late fees, fines and interest on its monthly lease this year. In February, the city said Methot continually paid the rent late and owed the city for repairs and stormwater fees.

Methot blamed the bad economy and the city's bad billing practices for much of the debt. He later asked the city to forgive the debt.

In March, Methot agreed to pay the city nearly $100,000. As part of the deal, Foster and a council committee agreed to renew Methot's contract, which expires in October, for five more years.

The full City Council rejected the deal in April.

Council member Wengay Newton took issue with Methot's supporters for blaming the city for seeking a new airport operator, saying: "We have to look at what's best for the city and taxpayers."

Mark Puente can be reached at mpuente@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8459. Follow him at Twitter at twitter.com/markpuente.

St. Petersburg selects new manager for Albert Whitted Airport 09/08/12 [Last modified: Monday, September 17, 2012 10:39am]
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