MARTINSBURG - The company poised to become the Altoona-Blair County Airport's fixed-based operator is promising to spruce up the facility, build another hangar and possibly bring in new corporate aircraft renters.
In a letter filed with the company's application, DeGol Jet Center II pledges to invest $50,000 to $60,000 in refurbishing and renovating the interior of the maintenance hangar and storage area to kick off its initiative.
"That's what the facility needs, and what it has needed for a quite a few years," said Bruno DeGol Jr., president of DeGol Jet Center II. "The first thing we have to do is to clean it up and make it look presentable."
View some action from the Altoona-Blair County Airport
By spring, DeGol said he hopes to have construction started on a new hangar that could be rented to owners of corporate aircraft. That possibility creates the potential for higher fuel sales, yielding revenue not only for the FBO but also for the airport authority.
"This is not something we're going to turn around overnight, but we're definitely going to give it the old American try," DeGol said.
The Altoona-Blair County Airport Authority voted 3-to-2 on July 19 to work with DeGol Jet Center II as the airport's FBO, using a proposal the company submitted to write a five-year contract, with renewals that could extend the contract up to 20 more years.
Mirror photo by J.D. Cavrich
Roy Hetrick fuels a Piper Archer at the Altoona-Blair County Airport on Thursday. DeGol Jet Center II, the company poised to become the airport’s fixed-based operator, is pledging to invest $50,000 to $60,000 in refurbishing and renovating the
interior of the maintenance hangar and storage area as the first phase of a mission to spruce up the facility.
The authority ended its contract earlier this year with Penn-Air Inc., which vacated the property, leaving the authority to make arrangements for selling fuel which will continue until a contract is signed.
Dissenting votes were cast by board members who favored working with Altoona Aircraft and Aviation Services LLC, an independent group of aircraft owners and aviation specialists who formed to compete for the FBO job.
After the pending contract is signed - which could be as early as Monday at the authority's monthly meeting - DeGol Jet Center II will be responsible for operating the airport's service station, or commonly refered to as the FBO. Based on the DeGol proposal, it will employ both a full-time and a part-time mechanic.
The company may offer flight school, charter flights, aircraft rentals and aerial photography and related services.
"We really do want to run a complete operation out there, and I'll do any of those services as long as the flying community supports it," DeGol said. "We are serious about going out there as the FBO ... and with the investment we're making, we're going for the long term."
The other proposal
Altoona Aircraft and Aviation President Paul Nuss said his newly formed company offered the airport authority a better proposal than the initial DeGol plan.
"I don't want this to sound like sour grapes ... but the numbers speak for themselves ... and anything changed after the fact is a big deal," Nuss said.
Before the July 19 vote and for a few days afterward, authority Solicitor David Pertile advised the authority that it was under no obligation to reveal the contents of the proposals submitted April 21 by the two parties interested in being the airport's FBO.
After the authority's vote, the Mirror filed a Right-to-Know Law request form to acquire the proposals the authority discussed, evaluated and refined during closed-door executive sessions.
An advertisement asking for proposals said that on the day of the deadline, all proposals would be opened and read aloud. Some information from the multi-page proposals was presented aloud on deadline day, but Pertile later said the authority was under no legal obligation to read the proposals or the contents aloud.
The original documents showed Altoona Aircraft and Aviation willing to pay 8 cents per gallon to the authority for every gallon of aircraft fuel sold to commuter and other on-demand aircraft listed on Federal Aviation Administration-135 certificates. The DeGol proposal initially offered 6 cents per gallon, but at the authority's request, increased the number to 8 cents.
"The [authority] feels that if a Part 135 aircraft is not owned or managed by DeGol Jet Center II, that aircraft should be subject to an 8 cent fuel flowage fee per gallon," airport Manager Charles Pillar wrote in a May 27 letter to DeGol.
In a June 10 letter to Pillar and the airport authority, DeGol agreed to the 8 cents.
Nuss said the 2-cent difference is significant, considering that the airport sells about 150,000 gallons annually. With an 8-cent fee, the authority makes $12,000. With a 6-cent fee, it makes $9,000.
The proposals were the same in some other parts of the original proposals: 26 cents per square foot of ground lease, $16,000 a year in rent for the maintenance hangar and $18,300 annually in rent for the storage hangar. But Nuss' group also said it would definitely offer flight instruction, charter flights, aerial photography and other services that the DeGol proposal listed as optional.
Authority Treasurer Debbie Shuster King said the decision wasn't easy.
"Financially, they were extremely, extremely close," she said. "We felt fortunate that we had two very strong groups competing."
Making a choice
When it came time to vote on July 19, authority members King, Lanny Ross and Marty Marasco voted in favor of the DeGol proposal. Authority members Herbert Bolger and Gary Orner said they preferred Altoona Aircraft and Aviation Services.
Authority Chairman Donald Ruggery abstained because of a business and personal relationship with the DeGols. Authority member Frank Schauf was absent.
King, with 25 years of auditing and financial experience, including work with US Air and other FBOs, said she looked at financial records of other airport FBOs similar to the size of the local airport to gauge how they're performing in the current economic climate.
"They're truly struggling," she said.
In a letter offered on the day of the vote, DeGol Jet Center Inc. pointed to its track record of consolidating two FBOs at the Williamsport Regional Airport in Montoursville.
"As was our vision 13 years ago to transform two near bankrupt FBOs into a viable business, we see that same scenario at the Altoona-Blair County Airport," DeGol stated in his letter.
He also told the authority that he was in negotiations with two corporate jet owners who might be willing to move their aircraft to the Altoona airport. That could mean selling an additional 75,000 to 100,000 gallons of aircraft fuel annually.
DeGol, who also heads up the DeGol Organization, a group of several companies that evolved over 58 years and includes DeGol Jet Center II, holds a pilot's license.
"I started flying ... I think it was 1986 ... and yes, I started flying out there [at the Altoona-Blair County Airport]," DeGol said.
His group also parks four aircraft at the airport.
Altoona Aviation's experience
The Altoona Aircraft and Aviation Services group offered aviation experience as well. Some partners also own aircraft parked in rental hangars on airport grounds.
Nuss, a registered representative of NEXT Financial Group, owned and operated Highland Flying Service at the Ebensburg airport, where he sold aircraft and provided flight training, fuel, maintenance and storage assistance. He said he has been a pilot since 1972 and his training programs have helped another 100 pilots become certified. He has owned 11 aircraft and flown more than 6,000 hours.
His seven partners in Altoona Aircraft include Duane Crumrine, chief pilot for the Sheetz organization, a certified airplane mechanic and a local flight instructor since 1976; James C. Housel, the owner of Cove Helicopter, which maintains and repairs helicopters and small aircraft, and a former FBO director of operations; Edward Fry, owner and operator of Fry's Power Equipment; Barry Saylor, co-owner of Bryce Saylor & Sons Inc., Altoona; Dan Speck, president of TDS Foods Inc.; Bernard Stapelfeld, chairman of New Pig Corp.; and William D. Stenning, former airline captain and owner/operator of Lil-Mar Farm.
An uphill battle?
The day after the authority vote, Nuss was disappointed and somewhat perturbed about the process.
"It's water under the bridge to a certain extent ... but I think we were the ones with the resources to do a very good job here. ... I think we're the ones who have a long-term future in mind, who want to increase the number of local pilots here, which will help the airport," he said. "We have the vision because we're all airplane nuts."
But from the very beginning, it was an uphill battle, Nuss said.
Discussions about the airport's FBO have been on the agenda for about five years and DeGol was mentioned more than once about taking over for the faltering Penn-Air.
In 2006, during discussions, votes and in a letter published in the Mirror, King, Ross, Marasco and Ruggery voiced support for a lease with DeGol, an idea that fell through.
Potential conflicts of interest were a concern, too.
While Ruggery abstained from the July vote, he wasn't the only one that some thought should be abstaining.
Marasco, president of the ABCD Corp., said DeGol is on the corporation's board of directors. But Marasco said he has researched the question before and because DeGol is not on the corporation's executive board, he does not have a conflict of interest.
Ross, director of the Greater Altoona Career and Technology Center, said the DeGol business organizations have been supportive of the center, just like other businesses.
"I've never thought of it that way (as a conflict of interest)," Ross said.
Where does Blair County stand?
Blair County owns the airport and in years past, provided an annual monetary allocation toward operations. As the county's budget became tighter, commissioners took the position that the airport needs to make enough revenue to pay its bills.
Commissioner Diane Meling, liaison between the county and the airport authority, watched the FBO selection process from beginning to end. She said she felt the airport authority members did their "due diligence" before voting.
"I think both organizations have the ability to provide the services needed there ... but I believe the majority of the board preferred the experience the DeGol proposal offered," she said.