City to perform fueling at airport

Thursday, November 29, 2001

The city will take over fueling operations at Cape Girardeau Regional Airport Saturday to keep it from becoming just a landing strip.

The city is stepping in with loaned tanker trucks because Air Evac EMS Inc., the company that currently runs the fueling service, plans to cease operations at the airport at 10 p.m. Friday.

Airport manager Bruce Loy said the city had little choice but to take over the fueling service. "Our No. 1 concern is making sure planes can get fuel," he said Wednesday.

Six of the seven employees with Air Evac in Cape Girardeau will be retained by the city. The seventh employee, who currently runs the Air Evac operation here, will be transferred to one of the company's other offices.

The move will increase the number of city employees at the airport from nine to 15.

Craig Mills is glad his job isn't being eliminated. Mills fuels planes for Air Evac and holds down a second job handling ground service duties at the airport for Corporate Airlines, the lone commuter airline that serves Cape Girardeau.

"It's promising," he said as he prepared to unload luggage from a commuter plane on a rainy tarmac Wednesday afternoon. "We'll have more stability down there."

But the change has some rough spots. Air Evac plans to hold onto its 21 hangars, which it rents to corporate and private plane owners. Loy said that's still subject to negotiations because the hangars are on city land.

Air Evac wanted to sell its two above-ground fuel tanks and its fuel tank trucks that haul fuel to airplanes. But the city didn't offer enough money, Air Evac officials said.

" I know offers were made way below the actual market value of the things we were going to sell," said Toni Chritton, public relations manager for the firm.

Chritton said Air Evac plans to move the fuel tanks and its fuel trucks to other locations it serves. "It just didn't go the way we had hoped it would. We really didn't have any intention of leaving anybody hanging," she said.

The city was left without fuel tanks. Loy said the city will bring in large tank trucks provided by the fuel supplier and store jet and prop-plane fuel in those trucks. The city will install new fuel tanks if it can't reach agreement to buy Air Evac's, he said.

Air Evac is moving out for financial reasons.

Chritton's father, Air Evac board chairman William Chritton Jr., said in a letter to the city that the company has "never been able to make the venture financially viable."

The company, based in West Plains, Mo., operates air ambulance services in 22 states. Selling fuel and providing other ground services at airports wasn't its mission, she said.

Air Evac has operated at the Cape Girardeau airport since 1994 under a contract with the city. The decision to move out won't affect its air ambulance service. Its helicopters haven't been based at the airport for some time.

Besides selling fuel, the company has offered flight training, chartered aircraft services, hangar rental and aircraft maintenance. Air Evac closed its maintenance service at the airport about a month ago.

Loy said the city only is interested in handling the fuel service right now. Air Evac has sold more than $500,000 in fuel a year at the airport.

The city hopes to contract with other companies to handle maintenance and other services. Loy said he doesn't know if the city will remain in the fuel business or eventually contract that out.

Loy said he believes the city could at least break even on the service.

A local air charter operator is interested in handling at least some of the ground services.

Bill Beard, former manager of the Air Evac operation in Cape Girardeau, has operated Cape Air Charter at the airport since March. He said he wants to expand his business and provide maintenance and possibly other ground services.

Beard said most cities don't operate fuel services at their airports. He hopes the city eventually will hire a private firm to handle the service. Beard said a private operator could do a better job of promoting the service.

"The city's focus is on city government. It is not a commercial operation," he said.

Still, he's glad the city is stepping in for now.

mbliss@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 123

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