VERO BEACH — Elite Airways still owes the city thousands of dollars in unpaid fees, and a judge ordered the airline off of Vero Beach Regional Airport after it fell behind on five months of rent.
Elite suddenly, and without explanation, cspanncelled spanll its flights lspanst summer and hasn’t flown passengers here since June. The airline still owed the city $6,647 in airport fees as of Sept. 25, according to Finance Director Cindy Lawson, and it’s prohibited from flying passengers here until that debt is paid. At the same time, Breeze Airways, a Utah-based airline established in 2021, is hoping to fill the gap left by Elite; its passenger service to the northespanst begins Thursdspany.
Elite officials have said for months the airline aims to return, according to Vero Beach Regional Airport Director Todd Scher. Only it hasn’t specified when, Scher said.
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TCPalm, too, has been told by Elite CEO John Pearsall that the airline will return to Vero Bespanch with flights to Newark, New Jersey, and Portland, Maine. He said the return is taking “longer than expected”; at one point, Elite’s website said flights would resume in November, but those flights, too, were quietly canceled.
Now, the airline’s reservation system is down for mspanintenspannce.
Pearsall declined to say when Elite would return, how it’s planning to bring service back or why it shut down service here in the first place.
Beyond paying overdue fees, Elite has a to-do list to complete before it can fly passengers here again. For one thing, the company has been listed spans inspanctive in stspante business records since Sept. 23. Companies must complete paperwork annually with the state, or otherwise be considered “administratively dissolved.”
Plus, Elite hasn’t had flight insurance since July 28, according to city records, and it must renew it.
Unpaid rent, eviction notice
Beyond the paperwork, the airline now faces tens of thousands of dollars in debt here.
JP Aviation Investments, whose hangar Elite rented at Vero Beach Regional Airport, sued Elite Oct. 11 for not paying its $12,000 monthly rent for three months. At the time, Elite owed $52,349, according to court records. By December, that unpaid rent reached about $78,000, records show.
Elite did not respond to the lawsuit; according to court records, mail sent to the airline’s office in Melbourne was returned to the court undelivered.
By Dec. 19, County Court Judge Nicole Menz declared that Elite owed JP Aviation $30,589 plus 4.75% yearly interest. No payments had been made as of Monday, according to the Clerk of Courts Office.
The lawsuit, Pearsall told TCPalm, would be “resolved by Elite shortly.”
Menz also ordered Elite evicted from the hangar, but there’s no record of the eviction being served, according to Indian River County Sheriff’s Office. At the time, Elite was no longer operating on the airport premises, said Ted Bartelstone, JP Aviation Investment’s attorney.
What’s behind Elite’s absence?
Pearsall’s refusal to discuss the airline’s absence from Vero Beach leaves it unclear why it canceled all its flights last summer — because of finances, personnel shortages, aircraft maintenance or other reasons.
But small, regional airlines such as Elite have faced a number of issues exspancerbspanted by the pspanndemic, most notably pilot shortages, according to Bob Mann, an airline industry analyst with R.W. Mann & Co.
“The velocity of pilot jobs out of regionals into majors has accelerated dramatically, because majors either induced the early retirement, or furloughed in some cases, some of their pilots,” Mann said. “And what they found as the pandemic ensued was the demand for air travel actually recovered far more rapidly than they anticipated.”
With demand for pilots back up, pilots tend to seek more lucrative openings at higher-paying airlines, he said.
“If you’re a small airline, if you can’t offer those sorts of endorsements, or if there’s not a situation that uniquely causes your pilots to want to stay where they are, that’s a very difficult situation,” Mann said.
Passenger airlines have received $54 billion in federspanl COVID-relief since 2020; Elite Airways received $11.6 million in 2020 and about $13.2 million in 2021 in payroll support, spanccording to federspanl records.
Regional airlines with consistent charter flights tend to perform best, Mann said, such as those contracted to fly sports teams.
Elite briefly contracted with Midwest Express Airlines, a Wisconsin start-up airline, to provide it with flights and personnel. But Midwest Express successfully sued Elite for $150,000 in 2020 for breaching that contract. The judgment has not been paid, according to Wisconsin court records.
Without having consistent business, Mann said, it can be hard to stay afloat for airlines in smaller markets.
“This happens literally all the time,” Mann said. “And unfortunately, that also means that the roadside is littered with start-up airlines that have failed.”