The Vero Beach City Council was well within its rights when it voted last week to terminate its agreement with Elite Airways, which, despite repeated requests and warnings, failed to pay nearly $35,000 in overdue fees for its use of the facilities at Vero Beach Regional Airport.
Why, then, was it the wrong decision?
Because there was no need to make one – not yet, anyway.
Elite already had grounded all flights into and out of Vero Beach through the end of the month in an effort to stop the spread of the coronavirus from the New York metropolitan area, where it operates out of Newark, New Jersey’s Liberty International Airport.
And Elite President and CEO John Pearsall attended the April 7 City Council meeting and offered to wire the money that day.
So why the rush to vote?
Why didn’t the City Council give Pearsall one last opportunity to pay his tab, so, when this financially painful pandemic passes, Elite could resume its flights, which turned a profit for the airline and provided a service many local residents want?
Why didn’t council members postpone the decision for two weeks – they’ll meet again Tuesday – and if Pearsall stiffed the city again, then evict Elite?
“I don’t know why Mr. Pearsall didn’t pay sooner, but he offered to pay that day,” Vice Mayor Laura Moss said. “What more could he have done that day? He answered our questions. He said he was pursuing governmental assistance available because of the coronavirus. He covered all the bases.
“He was offering to do whatever was needed, and I think it would’ve been in the best interest of the community to keep talking,” she added. “But you could feel the negativity towards Elite in that chamber.”
Moss, along with Councilman Rey Neville, opposed terminating Elite’s agreement, citing the community’s support for the airline and the absence of any downside to giving Pearsall one more chance to pay his debt.
They were outvoted by Mayor Tony Young and Councilmen Robbie Brackett and Joe Graves.
Graves criticized Pearsall for making no effort to pay any part of the overdue, agreed-to fees and waiting until the council’s pending vote before showing any sense of urgency, saying, “It’s time to put an end to this. It’s time to move on.”
Brackett expressed his disappointment with Elite’s failure to honor its financial commitment, saying, “This hurts,” because the city acted in “good faith” and as a “good partner” throughout its 3 ½-year relationship with the airline.
“For them to not pay us after all we did was very discouraging,” Brackett said, adding that he didn’t believe Pearsall would follow through on his promise to wire the money last week. “This was the right decision.”
Certainly, Pearsall’s willingness to test the city’s patience was disturbing, coming from someone who repeatedly touted Elite’s connection between Vero Beach and Newark as the airline’s “most successful” route.
Just three months ago, the City Council rejected its Airport Commission’s recommendation to sever ties with Elite and instead approved a new two-year contract with the Maine-based airline.
The city has invested millions of dollars in airport improvements to accommodate the Elite, and last winter it sought and obtained a three-year, FDOT reclassification waiver so the airline could continue operating here without creating a financial burden for the city.
So, when Pearsall said in a last-gasp plea to the council, “Elite wants to work with you,” his words rang hollow. He provided no reasonable explanation for not paying the fees, prompting some to speculate that the airline was struggling financially, especially during the ongoing pandemic.
“All airlines are having a hard time right now,” Vero Beach Airport Director Eric Menger said. “But what’s tough to understand is John said he’d wire the money that day, which meant the funds were available. Why did he wait until it was too late?”
Jim O’Connor, the city manager who helped bring Elite to Vero Beach in 2015 and is now retired, also was puzzled by Pearsall’s ham-handed handling of what appears to have been a simple business transaction.
“If you say you like this market and you’re successful here, you don’t mess around for $35,000,” O’Connor said. “You write the check.”
Pearsall’s strongest argument for getting one final reprieve from the city was that the community wanted Elite to stay here. It was almost enough, as shown by the 3-2 vote in favor of ousting Elite.
“I’m not being critical of my fellow council members, because it has been a bumpy ride with Elite lately, and I can understand why we all voted the way we did,” Moss said. “But I was looking at the long term.
“We don’t know what the full effect of this decision will be,” she added, “but I’m sure the effect will be felt for quite a while.”
City officials say Elite’s flights had an $8 million annual impact on the local economy, and many will miss the convenience of having commercial air service in our backyard.
“I’d have preferred to find a way to continue airline service here,” Menger said. “As an airport director, I think it adds something to your airport and to your community.”
Elite was a boutique airline that was a good fit for Vero Beach, where we filled more seats on flights to and from Newark and later Asheville, N.C., than Pearsall could’ve imagined.
And, as far as we know, there is no other airline waiting in the wings to replace Elite, which leaves Vero in the same position it was for many years before Pearsall launched service here – a city with a very nice little airport but no airline service.
We might never know the real reason Pearsall foolishly gambled away a moneymaking operation here, and it’ll be interesting to see if Elite survives. Likewise, we’ll never know what would’ve happened if three of our councilmen had given him one last chance.
They had nothing to lose by waiting.
Instead, Vero lost an airline.