By J. Graber
Dr. Chris Winterholler loves flying his Cirrus SR20 airplane.
“I’d rather do this than anything else,” Winterholler says while checking the gauges on the plane as he prepares for takeoff. “I just think it’s a blast every time I go somewhere.”
It’s not just about fun, though. The Scottsdale dentist owns a practice here and another in Payson.
“I’m the only dental office in Payson that can do advanced dental procedures,” he says.
So, twice a week, he flies to Payson to care for patients. The 20-minute trip is significantly shorter than the 90-minute drive.
“If you think of the time I’ve saved since I owned this plane in terms of being able to do business and have a life, it’s substantial,” Winterholler says.
He’s been flying in and out of the Scottsdale Airport since he bought the plane 17 years ago, but that’s about to change.
He received an eviction notice December 1 saying he would have to be out of the shaded tie-down where he stored his plane by April 1. Since then, he’s been tying down his plane in the airport’s transient parking while he waits for a parking spot at another local airport.
He’s not alone.
At least 78 plane owners who park their aircraft at what was known as the Greenway Shades area of the airport received eviction notices.
Jet Aviation, a fixed-base operator at the airport that owned the leases, canceled them and demolished the site to make room for new facilities, including 30,000 square feet of hangar space, 13,000 square feet of office and lobby space, and 200,000 square feet of private ramp.
Jet Aviation is building what it called a “customer flagship facility” in Scottsdale.
“This is part of our commitment to Scottsdale: to continue to grow and invest in this key market, expanding our offering to better serve our customers here and around the world,” says Elouise Dalli, company spokesperson.
Founded in 1967, Jet Aviation provides business aviation services in 50 countries. The Basel, Switzerland-based company is a subsidiary of General Dynamics.
Its lease cancellations have angered many of the displaced plane owners, who formed a group called Save Scottsdale General Aviation, so much that they hired an attorney and sued the airport and Jet Aviation.
At the crux of their complaint is the claim that the city violated the state’s gift clause, which says governmental agencies in Arizona cannot “give or loan its credit in the aid of, or make any donation or grant, by subsidy or otherwise, to any individual, association or corporation.”
In other words, taxpayer assets cannot be used to profit a private individual or organization.
By allowing Jet Aviation to terminate the leases for the 78 plane storage units early, the city gave Jet Aviation what amounts to a gift, according to the lawsuit.
The city claims the situation does not constitute a breach of the gift clause for several reasons, according to court documents.
First, the lease Jet Aviation has for the property was preliminary in nature and subject to change. Second, the city did not spend any money, as the T hangars and shaded tie-downs in Greenway Shades were past their age of usefulness. Finally, the city is getting far more in return for the new lease agreement than what it’s giving away.
In return for the outdated T hangars and shaded tie-downs, the city is getting a new conventional hangar, auxiliary terminal building, automobile parking, and apron that provides an off-site value to the city in terms of an access easement valued at approximately $647,000. It also provides paving and other improvements to the taxiways valued at $2.6 million, the city’s response to the suit states.
In the meantime, according to court documents, Jet Aviation is claiming the gift clause is irrelevant because taxpayer money is not used at the airport. The airport runs on user fees, not taxpayer money, Jet Aviation asserts.
It also supports the city’s argument Scottsdale spent nothing in the transaction of granting the land to Jet Aviation because the T hangars and shaded tie-downs are past their date of usefulness.
John Washington, a spokesman for the Save Scottsdale General Aviation, says he figures the city simply does not want to deal with 78 plane owners and prefers to simply streamline the process.
On the other hand, Winterholler figures the reason the city is allowing Jet Aviation to terminate the leases is financial. The airport gets 10 cents per gallon of fuel dispensed at the airport in what’s called a “flowage charge.”
Jets use more fuel than the piston-powered planes stored at the Greenway Shades, so the city stands to make substantially more money from jets using that property, Winterholler says.
Airport and city officials are not commenting on the suit or the plane owners’ complaints.
“The city has not seen any complaints, so we can’t really comment on it,” says Sarah Ferrara, airport spokeswoman.
Dalli calls the situation unfortunate and says the company is working with displaced pilots to help them relocate their planes.
“Some examples include reserving six box hangars to accommodate some 18 to 20 aircraft, providing extra notice period to allow alternative plans to be made, allowing customers to terminate leases early without penalty or typical notice, and not charging rent upon formal termination notice,” she says.
“As shared, it is regrettable that this development entailed demolition, but we are committed to working closely with the impacted customers.”
City officials like to brag that Scottsdale has the world’s fourth-busiest airport for business departures.
“WingX, which tracks business aviation flight activity globally, shows Scottsdale Airport just below Palm Beach International, Teterboro and Miami-Opa Locka executive airports through February 14, outshining 2021 numbers by 39%,” the airport’s website reads.
Winterholler suggests such boasts point to a fundamental shift in the airport’s operation, as general aviation pilots like him are getting pushed out to make room for more lucrative business jets.
He doesn’t blame Jet Aviation or the airport for expanding its business.
“I’m an ultra capitalist,” Winterholler says.
He just wishes they made accommodations for the general aviation pilots, too.
Save Scottsdale General Aviation also plans to file a complaint with the Federal Aviation Administration against the airport based on a $15.5 million grant the airport received for runway improvements.
In doing so, airport officials must keep the nature of the airport intact, according to Winterholler, and by eliminating general aviation, the airport’s mission as stated in the grant application fundamentally changed.
The airport either needs to give the money back or make space for general aviation, he says.