Another aviation company flies the coop
June 12, 2008 · Updated 9:59 AM
"Port of Bremerton officials couldn't help but scratch their heads over Alpha Aviation's departure from Bremerton National Airport last month.With the move, Alpha became the second fixed-based operator to leave the airport in as many years. Western Air Couriers moved out in December 1998, later filing bankruptcy.Port executive director Dick Brandenburg thought Alpha, an Arlington-based firm, would be a perfect fit at Bremerton National for years to come.We were surprised, agreed Jeff Robb, former operations manager at the airport. Alpha was by far the best candidate among the many (FBO) applicants we reviewed, and we thought that with their depth of experience, they would be with us for a while. Alpha president Peter Mullen thought so, too. His company became an airport tenant last July on a month-to-month basis, but left Dec. 31, citing irreconcilable differences.Problems surrounding fuel prices and Department of Defense contracts cropped up at the outset, creating tension between the port and Alpha. We wanted them to be successful in their operations in the worst way, Brandenburg said. But problems started right off. (Alpha) was like a (baseball) bat hitting a bee's nest.Turns out the price of aviation gas was the bee's nest.In a tenancy agreement, port officials and Mullen agreed that Alpha would operate the airport's fuel station and equipment. Prior to Alpha's arrival, the port was in charge of fuel. Mullen said he told port officials that fuel prices should be higher because they had been set too low. Oil prices had shot up, he said, and the port's fuel sales didn't reflect that trend.It was like a terrific firestorm brewing with the local pilots, Mullen said.Alpha started charging $2.26 per gallon for aviation gas, whereas the port had charged $1.93.General-aviation pilots didn't seem to appreciate the 33-cent jump in fuel costs, and many of them flew to an airport Shelton for Olympic Air gas at $1.85 per gallon.Recreational pilot Doug Haughton, who is also a Bremerton Pilots and Tenants Association member, said he was disappointed in Alpha's decision, although the price hikes didn't put the squeeze on his wallet.I felt disappointed in an entity that would alienate potential customers seemingly without regret, he said. When it was logical to do so, I fueled at other facilities.Mullen said his gas prices were about average among other fixed-base operators within a 35-mile radius and were set to keep his business going. Mullen said he had to account for personnel, rent, insurance, equipment and maintenance costs, not to mention the fledgling flight school that couldn't quite get off the ground. According to its lease agreement, Alpha paid the port $850 a month for terminal space, and the port received compensation on fuel sales.Mullen said he couldn't do that on revenue from $1.93 per gallon.It's not as if we were asking to move in there to make a lot of money, Mullen said. While a majority of general-aviation pilots shunned Alpha, Mullen said he asked the port for support but didn't get it.It would have been relatively easy for them to smooth that over, he said.Brandenburg didn't agree. He said Alpha was responsible and suggested the company lower its rates to appease local pilots.Their problems had nothing to do with us, Brandenburg said. It's their performance problem. It was a huge disappointment when they alienated the general aviation crowd.I don't know of any FBO getting rich providing fuel, said John Sibold, a pilot and director of aviation operations at Bellingham Airport. Alpha Aviation is also the FBO at Bellingham.If you look at the big picture, the cost of aviation gas isn't out of line, Sibold said. It's just that's it's often the easiest target.Because FBOs often provide myriad services, such as flight lessons and radio communication, Sibold said it's important for FBOs to provide fuel. When flight lessons wane in the winter, he said fuel business can help pick up the slack over leaner months. Alpha is no exception, he said.Now the port operates the fuel station and charges $2.04 per gallon.Relations between Alpha and the Port of Bremerton deteriorated further in mid-October when then Port staffer Jeff Robb sent Alpha a lease-termination notice. Talks were scheduled, however, and both parties met to work out tenancy problems.Mullen, however, ultimately announced the company was leaving to focus entirely on its Arlington and Bellingham businesses.While animosity between Alpha and pilots at Bremerton National didn't subside, squabbles over a Department of Defense contract strained Alpha-port relations further.While Mullen cited legal reasons for not submitting appropriate paperwork to the federal agency, Brandenburg said there was no reason to not follow through.They just had to fill in the blanks, he said. That was it.Now it seems the port has its own blank spot to fill. There's no argument among officials whether the airport needs an FBO. It's now just a question of who and when.I'm not sure the port needs an FBO the way we've had one in the past, said Port Commissioner Bill Mahan. My guess is, we'll be doing something different than we've been doing in the past."