VERO BEACH — The Vero Beach City Council should ground Elite Airways and allow the airline ample time to vacate the airport because of the financial drain the company will create for the city later this year, members of the Airport Commission ruled.
The unanimous advisory board on Thursday made the recommendation that the City Council terminate a three-year contract recently executed by the Maine-based airline because having commercial service will end up costing the city big bucks beginning this summer if Elite continues operations.
The move is nothing personal against Elite Airways, which has offered flights out of Vero Regional Airport since 2015, city officials said.
The potential ousting is regarding an airport reclassification that could cost the city because Elite boosted air traffic over a certain threshold. 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.
“It’s really a tough situation that we’re in and it’s not an Elite Airways problem,” Falls said. “Elite is just a commercial carrier that we happen to have and that’s a side issue. The issue we have is that we’ve pushed up into the commercial airline category.”
Although it’s estimated commercial service in Vero Beach provided $8.3 million in economic benefit to Indian River County, the advisory board 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 last commercial service to operate in Vero Beach was American Eagle from 1932-1996, which offered flights to Miami.
“Unfortunately, I just don’t see how the present situation can sustain itself,” Airport Commission Vice Chairman Louis Vocelle, Jr. said. “Any future operations by Elite with 10,000 enplanements is an economic detriment to the city and to the airport.”
The City Council will likely take up the issue at its Jan. 21 meeting. The advisory board’s recommendation comes just days after Elite executed a lease agreement following the council’s initial approval of the agreement several weeks ago.
The council, however, must give the final stamp of approval since Elite signed on the dotted line.