Pilots who use South Valley Regional Airport in West Jordan will soon be without a service provider, after Leading Edge Aviation could not come to an agreement with the Salt Lake City Department of Airports on a new lease.
A small, single-engine airplane takes off at South Valley Regional Airport. It’s one of about 220 small airplanes based there that are owned and operated by private pilots. And for the last five years it and other planes flying in and out have relied on Leading Edge Aviation to provide them services. Leading Edge Aviation is what’s known as a Fixed Based Operator or FBO.
“We do the fuel concessions. You fly into the airport we take care of you," says Scott Weaver, owner of Leading Edge Aviation. "We’ll set up hotels, cars, take care of your airplane while you’re here. We also have a maintenance center, and flight school, as well as charter department. So pretty much anything you need with your airplane, general aviation aircraft, we’ll take care of you.”
But in less than two weeks, he’ll be closing up shop and leaving the airport. His previous five-year contract with the Salt Lake City Department of Airports expires on May 15. And while they were the only company to respond to the city’s new Request For Proposal, or RFP, the two parties couldn’t come to terms on a new lease agreement, even after months of negotiations.
“It’s been difficult," he says. "I’ve put my life into this. This is an extension of myself. I’m passionate and I love aviation. It’s heartbreaking. I feel for the employees; I feel for the end users. It really is a pretty big blow on general aviation.”
The city was asking applicants to sign a 20-year lease, and to put $2 million dollars’ worth of investment into the airport in the form of more hanger space, space that would ultimately revert back to Salt Lake City at the end of the lease. Weaver says under those conditions, they just couldn’t find a way to justify the expense.
“I mean, they gave us offers, we gave them offers," Weaver says. "It went back in forth. What it came down to was the capital investment. We offered a million dollars, they came back and wanted $1.5 and then they dropped it to $1.3, but it was just more than the business could financially support.”
“We’re going into this transition with a degree of uncertainty, not knowing what services we’ll have and not have going forward,” Tim Miller says.
He’s kept his plane at South Valley Regional Airport for about 15 years. Miller says the last time they lost the FBO, the transition period was rough.
“It basically was a dessert with respect to services," Miller says. "In essence, it was self-serve gas, a coffee pot, and a port-a-potty. So that’s pretty grim.”
And Miller isn’t alone in his concern over the future of services at the airport. On Tuesday night, about 100 pilots showed up at an information meeting put on by the Salt Lake City Department of Airports.
The goal was to help answer questions about what comes next, but the meeting quickly turned into a venue for pilots to voice their frustrations about a bidding process they deemed unfair and unrealistic. Those frustrations were clearly illustrated in an exchange between Cole Hobbs, who works for the city as the airport contracts manager, and Deseret News reporter Jasen Lee.
“We’d like to see 2 million dollars’ worth of investment for a 20-year lease term,” Hobbs said.
“So you want the operator to tell you they’re going to spend $2 million dollars of the money they try to make running that business for a property they don’t own?” asked Lee.
“They’ll also be able to take advantage of about half of the hanger rents out there and be able to move those hanger rents to a market based rent in about five years,” Hobbs replied.
That remark was followed by loud grumbling and complaining from the audience.
The meeting lasted about an hour. Towards the end, Hobbs tried to persuade the crowd that they’d attempt to take their views into account when writing the next RFP.
“We’re getting past the questions phase and into more statements, and that’s fine," Hobbes said. "Part of the reason we’re here today is to take those and understand what you’re saying and to digest what you’re saying and not to rely specifically on our consultancy. We’ve got to get it. If I don’t get the RFP right, I’m here, in front of you all.”
But many pilots left the meeting unsatisfied.
“There’s no accountability from those five people that stood up there," Creighton King said. "This meeting was an annoyance to them and the people that stood and talked, this was just a formality to stick it to the next group of people and if they kill general aviation they don’t care.”
Meanwhile, the city says they’ll release the next RFP in 2 to 4 weeks. They say the best case scenario will get a new FBO in place by October.
In the meantime, it’s still not clear what services will be offered in the interim. And while the city has asked Leading Edge Aviation to reapply, Scott Weaver says they probably won’t.