June 23, 2007

Airport authority rejects fee raise

The Melbourne Airport Authority on Friday refused to raise what's known as a passenger facility charge.

Airport officials wanted the $3 fee raised to $4.50 to help pay for projects and other expenditures at Melbourne International Airport. But the seven-member Melbourne Airport Authority governing board decided unanimously against it.

None of the authority members offered any reason for their vote.

Milo Zonka, a Palm Bay resident and pilot who follows local airport issues, urged authority member to keep the fee at $3.

He said the public already complains about airfares being higher at Melbourne International vs. nearby Orlando International Airport, and local airport officials couldn't very well ask Delta Air Lines to decrease ticket prices when local officials, in effect, would be raising them.

"This is an unnecessary increase," Zonka said.

The Federal Aviation Administration allows airports to tack the fee onto tickets to raise money for certain projects. About 11 cents goes back to the airline issuing the ticket for processing expenses.

The intent of passenger facility charges is to get users at the nation's airports to shoulder more of the expenses associated with expansions and other projects.

The theory is that, by having users essentially pay for some airport projects, it's less money coming from the FAA.

At Melbourne International, officials have, since May 1997, used the fee to collect $5.87 million.

They are using the money to pay debt-service costs associated with the airport's terminal expansion in the early 1990s. It still owes about $6 million for that project.

Passenger decrease

Customer traffic at Melbourne International was down 18 percent for the year, spotlighting the need for local officials to get more people using the facility.

Richard Ennis, executive director at Melbourne International, said Friday that he met earlier this week in Tucson, Ariz., with representatives from AirTran Airways, JetBlue Airways, SkyKing and US Airways about offering flights from Melbourne.

So far, US Airways establishing a route between Melbourne International and Charlotte, N.C., is the best hope, and Ennis said he expects the carrier to make a decision on Melbourne by September.

Ennis told members of the Melbourne Airport Authority that a US Airways representative told him the carrier wants to establish a route between Melbourne and Charlotte, but, "so far, they could make no real commitment."

German flights

The lower traffic numbers -- not unexpected, since Delta Air Lines, the airport's only major commercial carrier cut routes last year -- comes as Melbourne International tries to salvage a deal with a German-based tour operator that wants to bring weekly charter flights to Melbourne from Berlin beginning this fall.

Melbourne International, like many smaller regional airport, suffers from being in the shadow of a much larger airport, in this case, Orlando International, where carriers compete against each other and offer fare prices often hundreds of dollars less than what Delta offers travelers locally.

The German charter flights are in serious jeopardy because of a lack of available U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents to process the hundreds of German tourists expected to visit the Space Coast each week.

U.S. Customs representatives have told local officials they simply don't have the personnel to process the flights in a timely manner because they're booked at Port Canaveral with similar duties for cruise ship passengers.

At stake locally is Melbourne International's attempt to establish itself as a player -- albeit a relatively small one -- in the foreign charter and cargo business.

Also, if the deal doesn't happen, the Space Coast would lose millions of dollars officials expect the European tourists to spend while they're here.

Ennis said LTU International, which is supplying a 320-seat Airbus 330 for the flights, and the tour operator, M-Touristik of AG Rostock, Germany, will decide within a week to 10 days if the weekly flights will occur.

The flights are scheduled to begin Nov. 3, and continue weekly for 26 weeks.

In the meantime, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, and the heads of three local chambers of commerce organizations, have written letters to Ralph Basham, commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, asking him to look into problem.

"The LTU representatives are seeking assurance that additional customs agents will be assigned to this flight," Nelson writes in his letter to Basham. "If they do not get such assurance, they have indicated they will need to take their business elsewhere."

Shannon Meyer, president of the Melbourne-Palm Bay Area Chamber of Commerce, said to Basham in her letter: "Without these agents, we are sure to lose this very beneficial piece of business."

Other developments

In other action Friday, the authority voted to:

  • Consulting contract: Give Tony Freudmann, chairman of Freudmann Tipple International Ltd., a consulting group, a six-month consulting contract worth $25,500 to help find international business for the airport.
  • Equipment purchase: Spend $801,000 on equipment to assist with passengers and cargo if the LTU charter flights materialize. The purchase is contingent upon the German flights occurring.

Source: Florida Today

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