VERO BEACH ― Elite Airways resumed flights in and out of Vero Beach Regional Airport on May 8. The first flight was from Vero Beach to Portland, Maine, with a stop in Sarasota-Bradenton, Florida.
Elite’s nonstop service from Vero Beach to Newark, New Jersey resumed on May 11. The twice-weekly flights on Mondays and Fridays depart Vero Beach at 8 a.m., arriving at Newark Liberty Int’l Airport at 10:45 a.m.; and depart Newark at 11:40 a.m., returning to Vero Beach at 2:30 p.m.
The resumption of flights was a surprise, considering the City Council’s decision in March to terminate its agreement with Elite due to unpaid bills. That termination was followed by Elite’s suspension of service due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to airport law expert and attorney Peter Kirsch of the firm Kaplan, Kirsch, and Rockwell, which was hired by the city to figure out a way forward, the city was not in a position to block Elite from using the airport. Mr. Kirsch helped the city craft a new policy to protect the city’s financial interests.
“The Vero Beach Regional Airport is a commercial service airport, which means that it is obligated to accommodate scheduled service,” Mr. Kirsch said. He added that the city needed to quickly pass a resolution establishing rates and charges for the use of the airport.
The council unanimously passed that resolution drafted by the attorneys, allowing the city to charge Elite and other airlines for use of the airport. Without the resolution in place, Mr. Kirsch said, Elite could use the airport for free.
Mr. Kirsch explained that the city’s obligations are based on airport improvement grants it receives from the FAA.
“Over the last 15 years the airport has received about $8.5 million worth of grants,” Mr. Kirsch said. “Each time the city accepts a grant, it signs a contract with the federal government, which contains 39 provisions known as grant assurances, which are required both by contract and by federal law. It is these 39 provisions that effectively heavily regulate all elements of airport operation.”
The city is bound by specific provisions because it has received federal grants, Mr. Kirsch said. “Had the city not received the federal grants, it would not be subject to this degree of federal oversight.”
One of those assurances obligates the city to make the airport available for public use on reasonable terms. The city can’t discriminate by prohibiting commercial service or charging different fees to comparable users.
The practical effect of the grant assurances is that the city cannot prohibit scheduled operations and cannot deny access to a particular operator. The city can condition access on the payment of reasonable fees.
Mr. Kirsch said at the May 5 city council meeting that the city needed to enact the resolution quickly, before Elite resumed service, and establish rates for all carriers. The city did not previously have such a resolution. Without it or another agreement with the airline, Elite could land at the airport and the city would have no basis to charge them anything.
The resolution, which applies only to scheduled operations, establishes two categories of airlines: permitted carriers, and non-signatory carriers.
Mr. Kirsch said they wrote the resolution to create an incentive for airlines to become a permitted carrier. The resolution requires the airline to set up an account which allows the city to deduct money, so the airline can’t be in default.
Elite Airways president John Pearsall, who in March seemed shocked that the city was evicting the airline, quickly expressed support for the resolution and the new rate structure.
“We are gratified by the City Council’s actions in resuming commercial airline service and look forward to expanding at Vero Beach in years to come,” said Mr. Pearsall. “We’d also like to assure the public that we are doing everything we can to keep customers and employees safe during this evolving crisis.”
According to City Manager Monte Falls, Elite immediately paid off its past due debt to the city.
“As of this morning, Elite has satisfied their past due balance of $16,695,” Mr. Falls said on May 5. “Mr. Pearsall indicated that he would do that, and he did honor that obligation. Based on your vote today, we will be back in touch with them to work out the other details. I think that showed his good faith that he wanted to move forward.”
The motion to adopt the resolution passed 5-0, and Elite Airways resumed flights three days later.
Passengers above the age of two on all Elite Airways flights are required to bring and wear face-masks during check-in, during the flight, and while deplaning.
For more information or to purchase tickets, visit www.eliteairways.com or call (877) 393-2510.