Charlotte airport sells off its troubled DesignLine shuttle buses

Charlotte Douglas International Airport has auctioned off its 10 DesignLine buses, ending the airport’s use of locally made vehicles that were plagued by maintenance problems since their first purchase in 2007.

The airport decided to dispose of the environmentally friendly hybrid buses because of the difficulty of getting parts and service after DesignLine filed for bankruptcy protection last year, said Mark Wiebke, the airport’s assistant aviation director.

“We needed to cut our losses,” Wiebke said. “We were spending a lot of time and resources keeping them running.”

In a story in January, the Observer detailed maintenance problems with the airport’s DesignLine buses, including braking issues and a fire. Internal emails and documents showed that the airport bought more buses even after problems had emerged.

The buses cost nearly $5 million, paid with airport money and federal grants. Wiebke said he didn’t yet know how much the airport made in last weekend’s auction but added that the 10 buses were priced around $3,000 to $4,000 each.

Used buses are typically priced around that amount, but the DesignLine models gave the airport only about 60 percent of the miles that it normally gets from diesel buses, he said.

Airport passengers and employees faced longer shuttle bus wait times earlier this year, as Charlotte Douglas struggled to keep enough vehicles operating. But Wiebke said the fleet now has enough after buying 20 new diesel buses, bumping the total to about 72. The airport also plans to add 20 more to replace older models and keep enough buses in reserve, he said.

DesignLine once offered Charlotte a promising toehold in a green-energy manufacturing sector, but the bus maker struggled financially for years before filing for bankruptcy, costing investors millions and leading to layoffs for a workforce that once reached 250.

A group led by retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Buster Glosson and his son, Brad, bought the company in 2006 and moved it to Charlotte from New Zealand. DesignLine attracted high-profile investors such as former Gov. Jim Martin and businessman Cameron Harris, and employed then-Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx as an in-house attorney until he became U.S. transportation secretary last year.

From a factory off Westinghouse Boulevard, DesignLine made buses for transit agencies in cities such as Baltimore and Denver. But over time, the company faced lawsuits and contract cancellations over late deliveries and performance problems, according to court documents.

The Observer reported last year that the FBI has investigated the company over allegations that it installed used parts in new buses. An FBI spokeswoman declined to comment.

DesignLine’s assets were sold in bankruptcy court last year to a California-based investment group, which restarted the company under the name EPV Corp., short for Environmental Performance Vehicles.

EPV in January said it hired 40 employees to restart production, but it was searching for customers after former DesignLine contracts were canceled. In recent months, EPV has laid off workers, according to sources familiar with the matter, and the company’s future plans are not clear. EPV officials did not return calls seeking comment this week.

The same investment group also bought the assets of a former DesignLine supplier, Charlotte-based Metrolina Steel, in a bankruptcy auction and is now operating under the name Metrolina Corp. Separately, Metrolina Steel emerged from bankruptcy this year and moved to Huntersville.

Wiebke said the airport tried to work with EPV, but it was difficult to get the high-tech parts and service the buses needed. Officials decided to dispose of the buses this spring.

Wiebke said it was a good idea to try new technology, but it was a mistake to make the DesignLine buses such a large portion of the airport’s fleet.

The airport’s new buses are diesel vehicles that meet the latest Environmental Protection Agency standards, he said. The airport could look at natural gas-powered buses in the future.

“We will always look at alternative fuels,” Wiebke said, “if it makes sense.”