published Sunday, September 23rd, 2012

Lovell Field lunacy

  • photo
    Line technician Joey Hartsell fuels an airplane at the Wilson Air Center, located on the west side of the runway at the Chattanooga Municipal Airport. Wilson Air Center is the airport authority's own fixed-base operator.
    Photo by John Rawlston.
    enlarge photo

When you think about it, Chattanooga leaders have used tax dollars in some pretty ridiculous and irresponsible ways in recent years.

The EPB Smart Grid that allowed government to get in the cable and Internet business comes to mind. The scheme cost taxpayers more than $160 million. There are the massive rows of Bike Chattanooga rental bicycles -- which gobbled $2 million in public money -- that sit mostly unused in their huge racks throughout the city. And it's hard to forget about that dopey $32,500 blue rhinoceros statue, purchased in the name of art.

But if there was an award for the single most outrageous boondoggle in Chattanooga, it would have to go to the Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport Authority for spending $10 million in local, state and federal funding to get in the private plane service business.

Since 2002, Lovell Field has had a perfectly good fixed based operator called TAC Air. A fixed based operator (FBO) handles most aviation needs at an airport that are not related to passenger airlines. That includes services such as fuel sales, plane maintenance, management of charter plane operations, pilot training services and plane storage.

Even though TAC Air was meeting the needs of Chattanooga's general aviation customers -- and despite the fact that it had paid its own way in terms of building and maintaining its facility -- TAC Air's landlord, the airport authority, decided to use tax dollars to get into the FBO business.

Claiming there was a need for competition, the authority poured $5 million -- $4.5 million in state aviation fuel tax funds and $500,000 from local airport passengers -- into a luxurious new FBO facility. Realizing that it had no idea how to run an FBO, the Airport Authority gave a no- risk contract to a company called Wilson Air Center to oversee the business.

The airport authority pays Wilson $10,000 per month, even if the facility loses money. If the FBO makes money, Wilson gets a hefty cut of the profits.

Wilson admitted in its proposal to win the sweetheart contract that it would likely lose $108,000 in its first year -- a loss that would have to be underwritten by taxpayers. By the second year, Wilson estimated that the FBO would turn a modest $24,000 profit. Well, now we're actually in the second year of operations, and that profit never came. As of May, the government-owned FBO lost -- and cost taxpayers -- an astounding $619,000.

The boondoggle keeps getting worse for taxpayers. The Tennessee Aeronautics Commission gave away another $5 million to the airport authority for new hangar space for the government-owned FBO, even though the airport already has hangar space coming out of its ears. TAC Air currently has approximately 40,000 square feet of unused hangar space and much of the government-owned FBO's hangar space sits empty, as well.

Besides the loss of tax dollars, there is another injustice taking place. TAC Air, which has employed hard-working Chattanoogans, paid taxes and been a good corporate citizen in the city for a decade is actually being forced to subsidize its competitor. The lease payments that TAC Air pays to the airport go toward underwriting a portion of the government-owned FBO's losses. Additionally, the state taxes on the aviation fuel sold at TAC Air pumps go toward the state grants used to build the government-owned FBO.

Why is the government-owned FBO failing so badly? It seems the airport authority, in all its brilliance, forgot to consider the fact that if a second FBO were needed -- either because TAC Air was unable to serve all of the general aviation customers at the Chattanooga airport or because TAC Air was failing to provide quality service at a reasonable price -- a private company would come in.

The idea of government getting in the business of serving private plane customers is clearly a losing proposition. Still, that didn't stop the airport authority from irresponsibly building an FBO -- and now taxpayers are paying the price for its mistake.

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richarddawkins said...

Hear hear!!!

September 23, 2012 at 12:25 a.m.
aae1049 said...

I don't know what is worse the Chamber of Commerce and River City Pilot 4 Friends program that exempts the well connected from property taxes, while the not connected stupid people pay their share of property taxes, or Wilson Air let's seed a business for friends with public money. They all make me sick.

Jim Hall is on the TDOT transportation board,Tennessee Aeronautics Commission, and will indeedy authorize a government funded grant for his buddy Jim Berry, Republic Parking Contracts (City and Airport) friend to park his plane at Wilson Air. Of course, if ya give Jim Hall in Jim Berry's building, it's all fun.

Bottom Line, it ain't hard to follow the awards of contracts, grants, and Pilot agreements, it is always the same group passing public tax payer subsidies between them.

Wilson Air is a product of public money diverted to benefit a specific group of people by design. Why should the public seed private business?

Wake up people, these triflers at the airport are stealing from the public.

September 23, 2012 at 12:34 a.m.
ChipHerrell said...

Yeah & on top of all this, let's not forget about Chattanooga City Government getting into the hotel/motel business taking valuable funds away from the Chattanooga Choo Choo, The Trade Center & other motels in downtown. And let me say this... betcha won't see anyone staying at the "Chattanoogan" riding those bicycles either.

September 23, 2012 at 12:06 p.m.

Sorry, but your credibility is lost, since you are still going on with your lies about EPB.

Maybe you should realize what crying wolf does.

September 23, 2012 at 12:40 p.m.
aae1049 said...


There is more than ample data to show gross financial losses at Wilson Air to the tune of over half a million, and a business that taxpayers should not have funded.

You are suggesting that you will ignore all gross negligence and waste of our tax dollars, because of EPB. It is you that has absolutely no credibility.

September 23, 2012 at 1 p.m.
jesse said...

Thanks for shining a light on this stuff!

Hope you keep it up!!

WAY past due for this kind of reporting!

September 23, 2012 at 5:16 p.m.
moon4kat said...

Government is not always the problem, but when elected dupes get wined & dined by entrepreneurs and wheeler-dealers, it is usually the taxpayers who suffer.

September 23, 2012 at 9:17 p.m.
fairmon said...

Our local city government could easily be labeled socialist. What is the justification for owning tax payer financed businesses that compete with privately owned businesses? To name a few, The Chattanoogan, the Tivoli, memorial auditorium, a pharmacy, two golf courses, a marina to name a few plus significant real estate through out the city with the old farmers market being the most notorious. You want to learn more about city finances? Find out what the future unfunded liabilities are including bonds, pensions and benefits, state and federal grants activities that will at some point have to be funded by the city if continued? What is the annual bond interest cost?

September 25, 2012 at 4:43 a.m.
fairmon said...

Tax payers need and have a right to know about these things and just as improtant what if anything they can do about it. The TFP is to be commended and to be encouraged to do more investigative reporting of this nature.

September 25, 2012 at 4:47 a.m.
timbo said...

Drew hits another home run...

Now investigate what the EPB does with all of the deposits that have to be paid to get service. What you will find is that it is over $40 million dollars and is being used for cash flow with no interest paid to the rate payers.

Also look into the exorbitant deposits that business have to pay to get service. They are so high that it would be an impediment from starting a business.

Drew, you have only scratched the surface on the EPB.

September 25, 2012 at 10:39 a.m.
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