June 25, 2008

Gator Air Still Trying to Fly: Troubled Air Carrier Now Not Paying Bills

By Ryan McCarthy, Florida Keys Keynoter, Marathon

Jun. 25--Gator Air doesn't appear to be letting a cease-and-desist letter from Monroe County, an outstanding $5,700 fuel bill to Cristal Clear Aviation and a Federal Aviation Administration investigation stand in the way of attempting to provide air service to the Keys.

The startup venture's Web site, www.flygatorair.com, has been up and running for a month since being shut down shortly after Gator Air began flying to the Keys from Fort Lauderdale March 7. The Web site offers flights to Marathon for $69 per person and Key West for $129 per person, as well as Fantasy Fest tour packages for $399 each.

However, Monroe County Airports Director Peter Horton said, "I have not seen them flying out of Key West for months and they really didn't start much service in Key West."

Gator Air has repeatedly stranded passengers in Marathon who were waiting for flights to Fort Lauderdale to get connecting flights, forcing them to either purchase new tickets or rent cars to drive to Fort Lauderdale. Passengers have also accused the company of not giving refunds on cancelled flights.

On May 14, Assistant County Attorney Pedro Mercado sent Gator Air President Dave Brown a letter saying the carrier was banned from operating out of the commercial terminal at Florida Keys Marathon Airport. The letter cited extreme efficiency and safety concerns, as well as the FAA investigation into Gator Air's operation.

FAA spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen told the Keynoter that investigation is still pending and Marathon Airport Manager Reggie Paros said he's had no correspondence with Brown in at least a month.

"The last contact that we had with Mr. Brown was probably some e-mails between his office and mine about returning keys to the terminal. He did in an earlier e-mail mention something about a meeting or press conference that he wanted to have down here to explain the facts, but I've heard nothing about is since that time," Paros said. Brown didn't return a call for comment.

"They can land at the airport, we can't bar them from that," Horton said. "But if they're going to get any relationship to handle passengers, to purchase fuel, to have a base of operation, they'll need to do that with a" fixed base operator, which supplies fuel and a place to enplane and deplane.

Paros said Brown began using the two fixed base operators at the Marathon airport, Cristal Clear Aviation and the Marathon Jet Center, to handle its flights. Fixed base operators cater to general aviation pilots on leased property.

Cristal Clear Aviation General Manager Bob Ciszewski said Gator Air owes the company $5,700 for fuel costs incurred when a credit card Brown presented was rejected.

"I figured I'd let him have a week. After a week when it built up, I had to put a stop to it because nobody was paying anything. If he shows up here I'm seizing the airplane," Ciszewski said, adding Brown claimed Aztec Airways was responsible for the bill and not him. Gator Air subcontracted with Aztec to perform flights.

"I cannot be responsible for [other's] debts, I have enough of my own. I am responsible for the ground handling, [etc.], just not the 'fuel and aircraft' expenses," Brown wrote in response to an e-mail from Ciszewski requesting payment.

Marathon Jet Center Line Manager Mitch Conover said the company would service Gator Air, but only if it paid for ground handling up front.


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