BROOKSVILLE — The five-year effort of one tenant at Brooksville-Tampa Bay Regional Airport to win the designation of fixed-base operator, known as FBO, might finally be coming to an end if the County Commission approves later this month.
Frustrated Michael Honeycutt, president and chief executive officer of air ambulance company Jet ICU, stood in front of the commission in late July to plead his case.
Honeycutt and his attorney, Michael Brannigan, used copies of letters that chronicled the long road — letters that showed how the company's previous efforts had been derailed by a series of circumstances and county staff decisions.
"I'm standing here. I've been here for 10 years, invested $1.8 million into this county, given back to this county,'' Honeycutt said. "All I'm trying to do is grow my business, and all I get are roadblocks. Why won't you help me? Why don't you help me grow my business?''
For airport critics and county commissioners familiar with past airport operations, which some say have favored a monopoly for the airport's only current FBO, American Aviation, the discussion was a chance to air their support to open the airport to competition.
An approved FBO is allowed to operate numerous aviation businesses. But the key business, the one most tied to the designation, is the ability to sell jet fuel. Currently, John Petrick's American Aviation is the only business at the airport that sells fuel. Critics over the years have argued that he has been able to keep fuel prices high because of his monopoly.
Jet ICU has been dispensing fuel for its own jets for most of its 10 years at the airport, but the FBO designation would allow it to sell to the public.
Commissioners ultimately agreed to direct the county staff to loosen regulations established for FBOs in 2015. At their meeting Aug. 8, they will considered revised regulations, then on Aug. 22 will revisit Honeycutt's application.
That decision came after Brannigan explained to the commission the twists and turns that kept Jet ICU from having its FBO application heard in years past. Conflicting letters from county staffers, legal complications, denials, promises of being grandfathered under old standards and refusals to allow the company to appeal decisions made by airport manager Kevin Daugherty were explained in detail.
The bottom line for commissioners was that they want to approve Honeycutt's application, but the minimum operating standards for any FBO at the airport established in 2015 are well above what Jet ICU can meet. Ten acres of land versus the former 3 acres are required. Building space would have to be 20,000 square foot rather than 10,000. Jet ICU has just 17,500.
Honeycutt argued that he was told he could operate under the old rules, which he said he could meet.
Commissioner Steve Champion interrupted the presentation, saying he knew there had been a contentious relationship among the company, the airport manager and the county attorney's office in the past.
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"You want an FBO out here. Why can't we just move on to the application and just get it done?'' Champion said.
Brannigan said he was going through the details for a reason.
"We have followed protocol. We have followed procedure. We have been accused of not following procedure,'' he said.
He said he wanted an immediate vote on Jet ICU's FBO designation. He read the description of what an FBO must do and explained that Jet ICU has run a fuel farm, has managed aircraft, has insurance and has demonstrated its ability to make the business work, as required.
"We have continually been thwarted. In five years, this is the first time that we have been allowed before the Aviation Authority or the Board of County Commissioners,'' Brannigan said.
Commissioner Nick Nicholson said he didn't want to revisit history and that he didn't think any of the sitting commissioners oppose adding an FBO at the airport.
Champion said the problem was the new minimum operating standards, and he didn't want those to stay in place because they are too stringent.
"Sounds to me like we're trying to prop up somebody else and keep others out, and I don't like that," he said. "I don't like the bully around the airport. That's what it is.''
He said, from his experience, "that's what the airport has done, try to keep the others out.''
Nicholson agreed, saying he would also like to return to the old FBO standards and that his goal always has been to change the way things have worked at the airport in the past.
"One of the things they did the best at was stifling competition, keeping people out of the airport, people they didn't want to compete with their friends or people they were tight with in business, stifling the competition,'' Nicholson said.
Robert Rey, of the airplane management company Jet Concepts, said he agreed.
"This is something that has been going on far too long, and there is more than one person at the airport,'' said Rey, who earlier this year grappled with a controversy involving Petrick's rental of hangars at the airport that were slated for demolition.
"We need to support everybody at the airport,'' he said.
Contact Barbara Behrendt at email@example.com or (352) 848-1434.