The new CEO of Sarasota-based beleaguered private air service company AeroVanti says there’s “light at the end of the tunnel” with a $40,000 hangar lease extended and plane inspections and maintenance going well.
But multiple issues with the company linger.
In late August, president and CEO Scott Hopes received a large box of mail from the company’s closed office in Annapolis, Maryland. (The company had a dual headquarters in Annapolis and Sarasota when it was founded in 2021.) Hopes, in a Sept. 6 AeroVanti private Facebook group post, says it was more than a month’s worth of packages and mail, including time sensitive legal notices.
Despite that, Hopes is feeling good about resolving the two lawsuits filed in the U.S. Middle District of Florida involving AeroVanti members in a six-figure plus membership category called Top Gun.
Those members, represented by Ryan Wagner, an attorney at Wagner Law Group in Fort Lauderdale, are claiming 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. Wagner has not returned several phone calls and emails from the Business Observer.
(The Top Gun membership tier is limited to 30 members who purchase 150 hours of flight time to be used within 12 months, according to a blog post on AeroVanti from aviation blog Private Jet Card Comparisons. The membership model costs up to $150,000.)
The lawsuits were filed against founder and previous CEO Patrick Britton-Harr, and his network of affiliated companies. But since Britton-Harr stepped down in July every case that names AeroVanti is now Hopes' responsibility. According to court documents, Britton-Harr is still listed as an individual defendant in each case.
Hopes, in a phone interview with the Business Observer on Sept. 8, says he's offered to sit down for an in-person settlement conference with some of the plaintiff's attorneys to find out specifically what resolution these two membership groups are looking for.
“There had been settlement discussions before (I took) the position that were not resolved,” he says. “So in one of the cases, the judge has granted an extension to respond which will allow us time to schedule that hopefully in the next week.
“So far most of the members have been cooperative and supportive of the efforts that we’re putting into this to get the operations back up and running.”
In the Facebook post for AeroVanti members, Hopes wrote he’s hopeful the two lawsuits can be resolved “without continuing costly litigation which only serves to take funds away from necessary maintenance to get planes flying again. Hopefully, that is not the intent, because we are diligent.”
Part of that diligence has been focused on getting aircraft operational again.
“Because of not knowing firsthand the level of attention to detail that was practiced before my control we opted to put the aircrafts through very rigorous inspections including factory technicians from the factory that built the aircrafts,” Hopes says of the Piaggio technicians that visited the hangars in Sarasota for three weeks. “So far everything’s looking good.”
According to Hopes, all the company’s aircraft have been undergoing thorough inspections and review of aircraft documentation log books. They brought in maintenance experts from Texas as well as the Piaggio technicians from Italy to review the aircraft before returning to service. In July, Hopes announced a $2 million loan had been secured to help get the company in operations mode.
"A lot of people don’t realize when a plane goes through this extensive of an inspection, it’s taken a part," Hopes says. "The interiors are taken out. Floor panels are stripped out and you’re looking at the skeleton of an airplane."
Hurricane Idalia, Hopes says, slowed progress a bit as the company was left with an inoperable hangar door. That was quickly resolved by AeroVanti’s avionics expert who discovered an override for the damaged circuit board. At the time, they had been working on getting a plane with the tail number N290BC operational. Hopes says most of the parts are in and they expect to return the plane to service by the end of September.
Currently, the company is operating with two hangars at the Sarasota Bradenton International Airport. Hopes says the hangar lease, which was close to $40,000 for the next three months, has been extended.
“When I took over, a lot of planes were being stored in the hangar in various stages of disrepair,” he says. The goal is, by the end of the extension, to reduce overhead to just one hangar. “Airplanes should not be in hangars unless they’re having work done on them.”
While the company is still working through an internal forensic accounting investigation that was announced in July to determine where the company’s funding went, Hopes says in a recent Facebook post that AeroVanti is close to having a budget to present to investment bankers.