A private air service company partially based in Sarasota and with a membership model that costs up to $150,000 a year is fighting for survival as it faces a litany of accusations it has defrauded members out of hundreds of thousands of dollars and seen its fleet grounded and planes repossessed.
The troubles have gotten so bad for the company, AeroVanti Aviation, that the industry executive named CEO and charged with turning the company around isn't even sure when he will start.
"I'm not being paid yet. It has been agreed to but not executed," former Manatee County Administrator Scott Hopes said Tuesday of his role as AeroVanti CEO, initially announced June 21. "I have the keys to the building, but I don't have access to the bank accounts."
And that access is something he will need in order to help clear up the legal morass for what just a few months ago was a celebrated startup that today a plaintiff's attorney suing the company refers to as having the “hallmarks of a Ponzi scheme."
For the past two weeks the Business Observer has spoken to disgruntled current and former AeroVanti club members, reviewed hundreds of pages of lawsuits, contacted the Federal Aviation Authority and other agencies and reached out to company officials in an effort to figure out what happened to AeroVanti.
In summary, the findings include a company in disarray and facing state and federal lawsuits claiming it sold $150,000 memberships for planes that had been repossessed; allegations its fleet had been grounded while pouring money into pro sports and other sponsorships; and questions about the veracity of claims it raised $100 million from investors. More troubling discoveries: the company’s founder, a celebrated and charismatic businessman, has been accused before of similar practices in the past and is no stranger to courtrooms.
AeroVanti founder Patrick Britton-Harr didn't return phone calls or text messages sent July 11 for comment on the story. Michael Hantman and Stuart Nash, attorneys with Holland & Knight in Tampa representing the company and named defendants in the lawsuits, also didn't return phone calls and emails seeking comment.
With a dual headquarters in Sarasota and Annapolis, Maryland, AeroVanti was founded in 2021, with a model that allotted private air flights to members for a set price. It rose to prominence quickly. Two examples: Britton-Harr was named a Business Observer40 Under 40 winner in October, And earlier this year, the company was named one of the 23 Tampa Bay Startups to Watch in 2023 by the Tampa Bay Business Journal.
The company also boasted of big wins in securing financing. It claims to have received a $100 million investment led by Lafayette Aircraft Leasing in 2021 and a $9.75 million Series A funding round last year.
Finally, in a series of press releases and social media posts over the past 12 months, the company claims to have have secured exclusive partnerships with the University of Maryland, University of Central Florida, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Chicago Cubs, Spire Motorsports and U.S. Sailing. It acquired Arizona-based Marjet Aviation in March 2022. As part of its continued growth, the company unveiled the AeroVanti Yacht Club earlier this year.
Ryan Wagner, an attorney at Wagner Law Group in Fort Lauderdale, meanwhile, is representing some members in the company’s Top Gun membership tier. The tier is limited to 30 members that buy 150 hours of flight time to be used within 12 months, according toa blog poston AeroVanti from Private Jet Card Comparisons.
“I don’t know what the end game for AeroVanti is,” Wagner says in an interview with the Business Observer. “If it was a scam, they wouldn’t be putting money back into the business with advertising and partnerships because (that’s) all very expensive. That’s the part I still don’t get.
“They’re advertising, but they’re not buying planes.”
Among a list of accusations made in another lawsuit is that despite allegedly defrauding “hundreds of members and further refusing to refund members the previously tendered membership fee,” AeroVanti diverted money to pay for sponsorships with professional sports organizations.
This “in an effort to further embellish the business stature and company health… and by way of gross misrepresentations, lure unsuspecting new members to purchase memberships in furtherance of the calculated and continuing scheme” by the company.
The lawsuit charges that “this action is the result of a calculated and continuing scheme undertaken by defendant, Patrick Britton-Harr, and his network of affiliated companies to sell private aviation memberships and otherwise defraud unsuspecting members out of their money.”
Meanwhile, in the July 11 interview with the Business Observer, Hopes, while declining to comment on any of the accusations, which all pre-date his hiring announcement, says he's "aware of the challenges and issues" AeroVanti faces and "the twists and turns" he's heard about and learned about in the past two weeks. "I know what the public knows," he says.
"One thing I also know," he adds, "is Patrick (Britton-Harr) is a great salesman."
Hopes also says, while again not commenting on the allegations, that "there is a difference between making bad business decisions and intent to defraud. This will have to run its course," in the courts.
A former elected Manatee County School Board member in addition to his role overseeing Manatee County, Hopes says he believes in the fundamentals of the business and business model and maintains he could lead a turnaround of AeroVanti. He says an investor in the company reached out to him about taking over the business in a turnaround situation. The company then announced Hopes as CEO in a June 22 statement.
Hopes says since early July he's heard from family friends and others, in the Sarasota-Bradenton market and nationally, that the company has been having issues with operations and its fleet. (Britton-Harr, in a June 30 interview with the Business Observer concerning issues with the company and fleet, said, in part "we just had a plane fly yesterday, and we will have another one today. We are flying every day. We are totally operational.” )
Asked about a time frame for when he will officially take over as CEO, Hopes declined to provide a date. He says he was scheduled to meet with Britton-Harr July 12 in the New Jersey offices of Network 1 Securities Financial, an investment firm that has helped AeroVanti secure funding. He says he hoped to have more direction on his role and information on the company after that meeting.
A trained pilot with experience running health care companies and private air businesses, Hopes says the private air industry is both complicated and highly-regulated, and "one mistake can be very costly."
One of the lawsuits Wagner filed, in the U.S. Middle District of Florida, based in Tampa, is on behalf of Royal AGMBR LLC.
In that lawsuit, Royal AMGBR, which is a car dealership, according to Carzing.com, alleges AeroVanti took in $15 million from five Top Gun memberships, each of which was supposed to have a designated Piaggio P. 180 Avanti Aircraft at its disposal. But the suit says the planes “have either since been repossessed or deemed not to be airworthy and in total disrepair.”
When Wagner officially got involved in February or March 2023, his client reported that every time they attempted to book a flight, it got canceled.
The Top Gun programs his two clients were a part of were worth $3 million and each had a plane associated with each program.
“Come to find out — despite having $3 million come in — both (planes) had been repossessed,” Wagner says. “No payments had been made on the planes, but the money had been dispersed.”
Another lawsuit brought by three individuals and a Miami LLC named Wishbone Media alleges Britton-Harr, AeroVanti and company officials, when pitching new members “typically embellish the business stature (of AeroVanti) by exaggerating the rapid growth of new members, the number of aircrafts in its ‘fleet’ and the significant amount of investor-led funding received to support expansion” of the company.
This lawsuit, also filed in Florida, contends the company says it had raised more $100 million in Series A funding in order to expand its fleet and to keep its member-to-aircraft ratio below the industry standards. But, the lawsuit alleges, that once the new members signed up, they learned that despite the representations “were nothing more than a mirage” and that the company actually had no more than three aircraft deemed airworthy.
And in a lawsuit in Oklahoma, its plaintiffs also allege that they were lied to and defrauded. In that case, Industrial Developers of Oklahoma says that before paying $300,000 for a Top Gun membership, its officials informed AeroVanti that most of the company’s flights would be to the western part of the country. They were assured by company officials that there was no additional charge for flights west of the Mississippi River.
The lawsuit also says marketing material on AeroVanti’s website said “our Piaggio P. 180 Avanti aircraft are currently available to take you wherever you may need to go across the continental United States” and that the membership agreement refers to the continental U.S. as “the contiguous 48 states.”
Thus reassured, IDO signed up and paid the $300,000 fee on April 28, 2023. But when it went to book a flight to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, its first, the lawsuit alleges an AeroVanti official notified it that the company did not fly west of Texas.
The company's "statement was the first time IDO was ever made aware of any flight restrictions or limitations, despite having specifically discussed flying in the western part of the country,” the lawsuit says.
The suit also alleges that it was lied to about the number of planes AeroVanti owned. A complaint for another lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court in Maryland, is sealed. Among the defendants listed in that case are Britton-Harr, Britton-Harr Enterprises Inc. and AeroVanti and two of its subsidiaries.
Also named as a defendant is Coastal Laboratories Inc. a company that, according to Maryland state records, is headed by Britton-Harr and which is listed as “not being in good standing.” The records also show its status as “forfeited.”
According to the Maryland Department of Assessment & Taxation, a company earns the “not in good standing” designation when it is “not in compliance with one or more Maryland laws that apply to businesses and their responsibilities in this state.”
Since Wagner in Fort Lauderdale filed the two cases against AeroVanti, he says 40-45 individuals and groups have approached him to represent additional lawsuits against the company.
“I’m just waiting to see how these two go before I proceed,” he says.
With the number of potential clients Wagner’s had, he’s been asked why he’s not pursuing a class action lawsuit. “Any potential clients that’s called after I filed these lawsuits, I had them send me their agreements and they’re all different,” he says. “After looking at 30 or so different agreements, they’re all worded differently. It’s crazy how (Britton-Harr) did it.”
Wagner says the defendants in the cases he has filed have until July 18 to submit a response. “I’m hoping that they settle because I’m sure there’s a number of people waiting to file lawsuits, but I don’t know how they’re going to respond. I don’t know how they can respond.”