VERO BEACH — Elite Airways will continue flights out of Vero Beach Regional Airport after the City Council voted to renew the carrier’s contract despite concerns that the airline continuing operations could cost the city big bucks later this year.
A unanimous council on Tuesday decided to execute a three-year contract — that allows either party to terminate the agreement with a 60-day notice — with the Maine-based airline although the carrier surpassed a passenger boarding threshold that will trigger the loss of state grants to the municipality ultimately costing the city upwards of $1 million annually. Council members want to salvage commercial service in the area by lobbying the state Legislature to lessen or do away with the passenger boarding threshold and ask the county to chip in financially since county residents also rely on the service.
The city was notified by the Florida Department of Transportation in December that the airport will be reclassified from a general aviation airport to a commercial airport effective in July.
The new classification comes after Elite saw more than 10,000 passenger boardings for the first time, making the city eligible for less grant funding. The airline recorded 11,084 passenger boardings in 2018, according to city documents.
The city could see a deficit of up to $1 million annually for airport projects in the city’s five-year plan, City Manager Monte Falls said. Elite would need to generate 200,000 boardings a year to makeup for the shortfall, Falls said. When an airport is designated as general aviation, the state usually covers 80 percent of the cost for large projects, while the city is responsible for 20 percent. Under the new designation, the cost split would be 50/50.
Although it’s estimated commercial service in Vero Beach provided $8.3 million in economic benefit to Indian River County, the city’s Airport Commission saw no upside in keeping Elite and also advised the City Council not to find another airline to replace Elite, because of the financial risk any commercial airline could impose. The advisory board recommended the city permanently ground Elite service and refrain from searching for another carrier to replace it.
The last commercial service to operate in Vero Beach was American Eagle from 1932-1996, which offered flights to Miami.