Rent Dispute Sends Airline History Museum Back to Court

The museum claims Signature Flight Support is charging them rent in violation of an existing lease agreement.

The Airline History Museum in Kansas City, Missouri, has been shut down and locked up since July as the result of a rent dispute. [Credit: Airline History Museum]

The Airline History Museum (AHM) located at Charles B. Wheeler Downtown Airport (KMKC) in Kansas City, Missouri, has been shut down and locked up since July 2022, as the result of a rent dispute with Signature Flight Support. Museum officials are heading to court next month, hoping to rectify the situation.

Signature Flight Support is one of the largest FBO chains in the world, with over 200 locations. Lease holdings at various airports include buildings that house office space, hangars, and undeveloped properties.

According to John Roper, president of the board for the AHM, Signature does not have the authority to force the museum to pay rent, noting that a 2005 lease with the City of Kansas City, Missouri, the airport sponsors states the AHM "pays $0.00 in annual building and ground rent as long as the parcel is a non-profit Airline History Museum as authorized by the Federal Registry.".

The AHM has been at the airport since 1986 and in its present location since 2000.

Signature Flight Support came to the airport in 2006, when the previous leasee, Executive Beechcraft, sold out to Signature Aviation.

According to the AHM website, "The sublease of Hanger 9 to AHM, is spelled out in the Master Lease Agreement, dated 2005. In 2009 the City Council made a 2nd Amendment to this Master Lease, allowing AHM use Hanger 9 rent-free through 2035 (City Ordinance 090370). Both Signature and the City agreed to this, and Signature received financial benefits from the City for allowing the Museum to remain in Hangar 9."

"It is memorialized that the city could not charge Signature rent as long as Signature does not charge the museum rent and we remain a nonprofit. This was done by city ordinance in 2009, yet Signature wrongfully charged us rent," said Roper.

According to the AHM website, Signature illegally collected $61,500 from the museum.

Signature challenged the lease agreement, citing a sublease written in 2000 that allegedly allowed it to collect rent for the space. Last year Signature went to court, and a district court judge ruled in its favor.

"After thorough legal proceedings, the Court granted judgment to Signature Flight Support for back rent and possession of the space, which the Airline History Museum previously leased at the MKC Airport in downtown Kansas City," Signature noted in a statement sent to FLYING. "Despite AHM’s claims that its sublease had not terminated and that it did not have to pay rent, the Court found in Signature’s favor and granted judgment against AHM along with immediate possession of the premises to Signature. We believe that this ruling was just and fair. AHM has not vacated the premises as the court ordered. Nevertheless, Signature is continuing to preserve the museum’s artifacts pending an Appellate Court’s ruling."

Roper counters that the AHM immediately filed an appeal to the judge's decision and posted a $250,000 bond while the decision was appealed; with the idea that the museum could stay open in the meantime. However, "Signature put padlocks on the doors in July of 2022. They have come out and said, 'We don't want the museum.’ They won't negotiate a new lease, they won't sit down and talk about the rate or how much space or even tell us what the property lines are."

The issue of property lines is key, says Roper, as it is his understanding that the AHM has 300,528 square feet, yet Signature only allowed the AHM to use 100,000 square feet. In addition, the property that Signature wants to charge the AHM rent for is not museum property. Rather, it is Signature's fuel farm which the museum does not utilize. Roper supplied FLYING with images of the property in question. It notes that the fuel farm was not in place until 2011, well after the AHM had its lease agreement with the city.

Roper adds that even before the AHM facility was locked up, they had difficulty getting repairs done to the building after it was damaged during a storm in 2021.

"The storm blew panels off the building. The airport said it was Signature's responsibility to repair it, and Signature wouldn't let us repair it. The holes stayed until January of 2023 allowing rain, snow, and birds to get into the museum. They finally patched the holes, but the building continues to degrade."

Roper says museum officials are skeptical of Signature's assertion it is continuing to preserve the museum's artifacts, which include several one-of-a-kind and historic airplanes.

The AHM has instigated a social media campaign that includes information on its website to explain its position. It asserts that the City of Kansas City has not been responsive to their requests for discussions. It  has a petition on its website to support the museum.

FLYING made several attempts to reach city and airport officials, including Quentin Lucas, the mayor of Kansas City; and Patrick Klein, director of aviation for the Kansas City Aviation Department by telephone and email, but our inquiries were not answered by press time.

TWA Museum Still Open

In the meantime, the TWA Museum, located in Hangar 1 at KMKC remains open. According to TWA Museum President Pam Blaschum, the TWA Museum was established at the airport in 1985 and has been in a few locations before moving to its present site. The not-for-profit TWA Museum occupies approximately 10,000 square feet in the main airport terminal and pays $4,240 monthly rent to Signature Flight Support.

"Hangar 1 was the first TWA corporate headquarters and one of the first overhaul bases. The airport is rich with history; it was dedicated in 1929 by Charles Lindbergh," Blaschum explained, stressing that the TWA Museum "is very much still open." When FLYING reached them they were preparing for their annual 1940s USO-style hangar dance slated for April 22. The event, complete with live music and period costumes, is a fundraiser for the museum.

Among the artifacts in the collection are a Lockheed Electra 12A Junior, the original cabin trainer used by the airline, a Link Trainer, and multiple models and photographs.

Meg Godlewski has been an aviation journalist for more than 24 years and a CFI for more than 20 years. If she is not flying or teaching aviation, she is writing about it. Meg is a founding member of the Pilot Proficiency Center at EAA AirVenture and excels at the application of simulation technology to flatten the learning curve. Follow Meg on Twitter @2Lewski.

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