Historic Triangle suspends regional funding to PHF in wake of state investigation

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The entrance to Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport (PHF) in Newport News. (Steve Roberts, Jr./WYDaily)
The entrance to Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport (PHF) in Newport News. (Steve Roberts, Jr./WYDaily)

Felix “Baba” Simmons, a driver with All City Taxi, said he hasn’t been picking up as many people at Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport [PHF] since the state started looking into the airport’s finances.

The investigation, which began earlier this year,  has also affected the decisions of some airlines, especially those planning on making PHF a hub who have delayed their arrival.

It’s a situation which Simmons, 61, believes is hampering his ability to make money and efforts to meet his airport quota — a problem for his supervisor and for Simmons.  

“[We] poor taxi drivers wait here three to five hours a day just waiting for a fare now,” Simmons said. “Now that we don’t have another airline there we don’t have as many people coming through.”

All City Taxi cab driver Felix "Baba" Simmons said since the state's investigation into Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport's finances started there have been fewer fares and more weeks where he hasn't made his quote. (Steve Roberts, Jr./WYDaily)
All City Taxi cab driver Felix “Baba” Simmons said since the state’s investigation into Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport’s finances started there have been fewer fares and more weeks where he hasn’t made his quota. (Steve Roberts, Jr./WYDaily)

While taxicab drivers around the airport are seeing fewer fares, the state is investigating a $4.5 million dollar loan guarantee authorized by the Peninsula Airport Commission, the airport’s governing body, to help attract and support the airline carrier, People Express.

In response to the state’s investigation, some area governments, including those in the Historic Triangle are taking action to protect taxpayers interests by suspending nearly $140,000 in airport funding.

Four out of seven area governments — James City and York counties, Williamsburg, and Hampton —  have halted regional financial support to PHF. Officials in Poquoson and Gloucester said they have not received invoices from the airport and haven’t paid into the fund recently.

Newport News spokesperson Kim Lee, said the city is current with its payments to the RAISE fund.

 The now defunct airline, People Express, went out of business in 2015 after operating for only three months that year.

Jessica Wharton, Newport News/Williamsburg Airport director of air service, marketing and public affairs did not return calls seeking comment.

Officials at the Virginia Department of Transportation were unable to be reached for comment by publication time.

The issue of guaranteeing loans to the airline has caused widespread problems for the beleaguered Peninsula Airport Commission as they now face down a state investigation into whether the commission misappropriated more than $3.5 million in state taxpayer money to bail out People Express. About $1 million of the loan guarantee was a federal grant.

While airport officials have stated the loan guarantee did not violate any laws, the publicity generated from the debacle led to at least one airline postponing its launch of a new direct service to New York City. 

The airline, Elite Airways,  was on tap to begin offering nonstop jet service from Newport News to New York City/Newark Airport and Long Island MacArthur Airport in March.  A news release in January suggested it was changing course due to ” challenging perceptions surrounding the Newport News/Williamsburg.” 

A taxi cab driver drops off a passenger at the entrance to the Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport (PHF) in Newport News. (Steve Roberts, Jr./WYDaily)
A taxi cab driver drops off a passenger at the entrance to the Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport (PHF) in Newport News. (Steve Roberts, Jr./WYDaily)International Airport.”

“It was a difficult decision to postpone the start of service at PHF,” John Pearsall, President of Elite Airways said in a release.

 Elite Airway’s delayed take-off is costing the area nearly $60,000 daily, according to the airport’s executive director Ken Spirito.

And on the local front,  communities are wavering in their support of the Regional Service Enhancement Fund [RAISE] —  an annual funding of more than $200,000 PHF receives from the seven area cities and towns. The money is slated to pay costs associated with attracting new air carriers and expanding existing air service.

The Historic Triangle communities — Williamsburg, James City and York counties — which contributes almost $60,000, has suspended its support for now. 

James City County Administrator Bryan Hill said it was in the best interest of the county to withhold the his community’s $26,000 portion as the state investigation progresses.

“Upon the audit investigation currently underway, James City County felt it was prudent to suspend funding,” Hill said. “At this juncture we have not been approached by the [Peninsula Airport] commission to discuss further. We are open to dialogue however that dialogue may only take place after the audit is completed and we have ample time to review the findings if any exist.”

The air traffic control tower at the Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport (PHF) in Newport News. (Steve Roberts, Jr./WYDaily)
The air traffic control tower at the Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport (PHF) in Newport News. (Steve Roberts, Jr./WYDaily)

Williamsburg  has also suspended its FY18 contribution of $5,627 until the state investigation is finished.

City of Williamsburg spokeswoman Lee Ann Hartmann said the city had to be sure taxpayer money was going to the right place before continuing payments. The RAISE payment will be withheld until the findings of the state audit are released “to the satisfaction of the City,” Hartmann said.

Baba the taxicab driver said all he wants to do is help people get from the airport to where they need to go. He said it’s less food on his table every time someone chooses to fly out of Norfolk or Richmond instead of Newport News because of the investigation.

“They need a reality check,” he said of the airport’s management.

Correction: A prior version of this story had improperly stated the City of Newport News had suspended its contributions to RAISE. The City of Newport News is current in its payment to the fund according to city spokeswoman Kim Lee.