Board Chair Guest Column: The Daily Sun

James W. Herston, P.E. is Chair of the Charlotte County Airport Authority. Column provided to the Charlotte Sun. 

Straight talk on Punta Gorda Airport’s futureJames W. Herston

PUNTA GORDA (Feb. 28, 2021) – As Chair of the Charlotte County Airport Authority (CCAA) Board, I am pleased to connect with The Daily Sun readers. You’ve likely seen a flurry of news coverage over the past six months as the CCAA discussed potentially entering into the FAA’s Airport Investment Partnership Program (AIPP).

I’d like to provide some clarification on discussions related to privatization and the Board’s structure, and invite you to stay engaged as we move forward. As interest from the public grows, I am planning to submit quarterly guest columns like this to provide further insight.

While I was one of the CCAA Commissioners that was amenable to hearing proposals from investors, I am also at peace with the Board’s collective decision not to pursue it further.

Our decision means we retained local control; we are not giving up our Part 139 certificate to operate an airport. We are not handing over airport management to an outside investment group that doesn’t know our community or our staff.  From the tenant who houses his single-engine Cessna in a T-Hangar, to the travel leader Allegiant with 10 Airbus A320s based here, people say things are operating smoothly at PGD. In fact, Allegiant’s management exercised their veto power in agreement with the CCAA Board’s vote.

Proponents of the AIPP say we have let over one billion dollars slip through our fingers by not pursuing it. That is misleading as the majority of that one billion dollar value will still be realized based on our current structure. One billion is the high end of the “total lease value from market” based on Vasey Aviation’s market indicative valuation presented at the November 2020 meeting, and it includes $500 million in capital renewal and $125-300 million in revenue share. The CCAA already has $500 million in capital improvements planned with revenues, state and federal grants, and passenger/customer facility charges over the decades ahead.  Furthermore, CCAA will conservatively profit $160 million over 40 years on its own, without a shared profit structure from an AIPP operator.

In reality, the proposed AIPP upfront payment of $200 million would have been reduced to approximately $140 million after the operator took our cash reserves and made a proposed $10 million payment to Allegiant and $20 million investment in Sunseeker.

That’s not to say the upfront payment of $140 million would not have been useful, but it would have opened up the CCAA to a host of off-airport requests that could have potentially diluted our mission and ability to operate if the lease agreement did not work out. In summary, there was understandable apprehension about entirely changing our operational structure, and the majority of the Board and Allegiant did not feel it was the right time to take that path.

So while Vasey Aviation is no longer working for the CCAA, and the AIPP is off the table at this time, we are still interested in growing public-private partnerships on a smaller scale. The CCAA is not only landlord to about 30 business tenants, we have concession agreements with private rental car companies, ground transportation providers, the terminal’s food/beverage provider, and Lamar Airport Advertising.

We welcome opportunities for businesses to lease airport land to serve their customers, and will soon be seeking a partner to operate the restaurant/bar space that will open in the new General Aviation Center in 2022. We are expanding airside infrastructure on the north side of the airport in the “PGD AviEx” to attract general aviation, aviation-related businesses and flight schools, which will also free up space for commercial air service to grow. The CCAA is clearly a business-minded, forward-thinking entity; evidenced by our success to this point.

The CCAA is an independent special district, enabled by the state legislature, that owns Punta Gorda Airport. While our electoral districts mirror the County Commission and School Board districts, and we are elected the same way, Punta Gorda Airport is not owned by Charlotte County. In fact, the CCAA owns the 2,000-acre airport property and it would ONLY revert to the County if the CCAA was dissolved.

While the CCAA Board may not always agree on everything, I think we can all attest that our low-cost airport model has put us on this successful trajectory and hard-working employees have kept us moving forward despite unforeseeable challenges. Given our resiliency during this worldwide pandemic, our strong partnerships and supportive community, I am more than optimistic about the future of Punta Gorda Airport.

Finally, I encourage Sun readers visit to peruse our annual summary titled “View from the Tower.” The interactive PDF provides a high-level summary of 2020’s operations, projects, finances, marketing and future developments – with links throughout it for those that want to take a deeper dive. Until my next quarterly update, please know we appreciate your continued engagement and support of our mission; serving the community and business through aviation.