Avantair airline closes, employees want answers - WFLA News Channel 8

Avantair airline closes, employees want answers

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CLEARWATER, FL (WFLA) - It was a high-end private airline called Avantair, popular with the rich and famous.

Headquartered in Clearwater, it abruptly closed down June 26, 2013. That
left hundreds of employees without jobs or health insurance.

Some of the big names who flew on Avantair's private Italian planes included Kurt Russell,  Goldie Hawn, Evan Longoria, Reggie Jackson and former Vice President Dan Quayle.

Avantair also allowed wealthy people to buy into the Piaggio aircraft in what it called a fractional ownership, a kind of timeshare arrangement. They could then book trips at a moments notice.

Julie Roberts worked behind the scenes at Avantair. "I loved that job! I loved working at Avantair." She was in charge of talking to the owners and celebrities when they called to book trips.

At one point, Avantair was flying high. At its peak, it employed nearly a thousand people and had more than fifty aircraft in its fleet.

But suddenly, on June 26, Avantair employees were called into a meeting and told they were all being furloughed until further notice. Not only did the employees not get paid for their final weeks of work, they say, but Avantair terminated their health insurance plan at the end of June.

Julie Roberts says: "we were all under the assumption we were eligible for

COBRA and then we started hearing the horror stories. The health care plan was terminated that there isn't going to be any COBRA."

For Roberts, who is battling thyroid cancer, losing her health insurance was devastating.

Clearwater attorney Ryan Barack has filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of some former Avantair employees seeking potentially millions Barack says they are owed. "They weren't given the advance notice they're supposed to be given before they were laid off. They were all just thrown out into the marketplace without jobs without any warning."

Barack says Avantair had missed payroll previously and had trouble paying creditors. The company also was the subject of an Federal Aviation Administration investigation, court papers show. Perhaps the final straw was when Avantair grounded its entire fleet of aircraft in June for inspection.

The owners of some of the airplanes then forced a chapter seven bankruptcy filing and the private boutique airline would never re-open. A trustee is now in charge of selling off Avantair's assets and liquidating the company.

Roberts has come to grips with losing her job and her health insurance but she still needs money to survive and continue her cancer treatment. "My prognosis is great but I do still need to have another radioactive iodine uptake. I was supposed to have that in July and I've put it off. I can't put it off forever. I need to get that done."

That is why Roberts, and a few other former Avantair employees, turned to 8 On Your Side. They want to access their 401k retirement accounts but can't seem to get any answers.

"It's my money. What I want to do with it is nobody's business but it's my money and I want it," says Roberts.

A third party called CPI runs the 401k plan but can't act without bankruptcy court permission.

Roberts says they have been trying for months to get answers on when they will be able to access their funds but to no avail.

Attorney Ryan Barack says "It shouldn't be taking as long as it is. These employees, who need this money, should be able to get access to those funds."

After Eight on Your Side contacted the bankruptcy attorney in the case, Lynn Sherman, the ball started rolling. Within a few days a motion was filed in court to terminate the 401k plan.

That court approval is needed in order for employees to have access to their retirement funds. But when it comes to the back pay the employees are seeking, that's another story.

"It could take years," according to Barack.

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