Ascension Air, an operator at DeKalb-Peachtree Airport near Atlanta, Georgia, is facing serious complaints from customers and a pending lawsuit charging racketeering. It had also been operating at Ft. Lauderdale Executive.
The company has been selling jet cards, timeshares and leases on Eclipse 550 and Cirrus SR22 aircraft. Its website is still active, however, phone lines yesterday returned a message they were temporarily out of service, and customers said they hadn’t been able to get in touch with the provider.
As of this afternoon, the phone lines were being answered via voicemail. Private Jet Card Comparisons started its investigation after being contacted by a customer of Ascension who said he was not able to get a response.
A 2015 report by Aviation Week said Ascension’s Contrails program was to include a fleet of six of the very light jets. In 2012, Aviation International News reported the company was offering time on a fleet of three SR22Ts, which was targeting member-pilots.
Ascension’s CEO Jamail Larkins has been a rising star in business aviation and beyond, making it onto Forbes 30 Under 30 list in 2014 as well being featured by Inc. magazine.
According to a profile, “In high school, he was selling thousands of dollars of (flight training) equipment while also performing stunts in air shows.” In 2000, the FAA named Larkins the national spokesman for its Young Eagles program.
Larkins told Aviation Week in 2015, “Our new Eclipse 550 Contrails program will bring personal jet transportation to a growing segment of aviators who want the flexibility and benefits of flying their own jet, without the worries of full jet ownership.”
Ascension’s troubles come on the heels of Atlanta-based SR22 air taxi operator ImagineAir’s shutdown last year. In May 2017, one of Ascension’s SR22Ts was damaged when the nose gear collapsed while landing at Marathon International Airport.
According to its website, Ascension offers jet cards at 25 hours with leases and timeshares at 50 hours. A 1/6th share of an Eclipse is priced at $639,167, plus $2,995 monthly management fee, and $620 hourly rate. Its jet card offers 25 hours for $40,000. It has similar programs for the SR22 quoting a share price of $91,460 based on a four-year commitment and $1,388 per month.
An undated profile of Larkins says, “Since its first inception, Jamail has transformed Larkins Enterprises into two successful business units, particularly Ascension Aviation in Atlanta, Georgia.”
It said services included an aircraft sales and leasing company, plus an aviation consulting firm. According to Inc., sales in 2008 reached $7.2 million, including $5.76 million from Ascension. A 2010 profile of Larkins in Black Enterprise said previous year’s revenues were $8.4 million.
Iqbal Garcha, an Atlanta-based doctor and private pilot, said he had purchased a share in an SR22, tail number N941CS from Larkins, and until 2017 had a positive experience. He says after that, he experienced availability problems. When the four-year term of his agreement was ending in 2018, he contacted Larkins about getting his residual payment from the sale of his ownership.
Garcha said that Larkins failed to respond to his attempts to contact him, but was continuing to charge his American Express card for monthly management fees. After calling the card issuer in September to dispute the charges, he says Larkins then contacted him and said he had been “out of town,” had the airplane in pre-sale, and asked Garcha to smooth things over with Amex so he could continue accepting payments on the card.
After verifying there was an agreement for sale, Garcha said he found out the transaction closed in December, and he has been unable to reach Larkins since. He says he is owed $55,000.
Another customer of Ascension says, “It was a total catastrophe. It was a total misrepresentation.” When he was originally discussing buying a share in 2017, he says Larkins told him he had already bought nine other Eclipse jets, and the one he was buying into would be the 10th in the fleet.
He says after he and his business partner had been stranded returning on separate trips from the Bahamas and Grand Cayman, and then he had missed multiple business meetings due to aircraft not showing up, they asked Larkins to refund their money.
After it dragged out, his attorney recommended running a title search prior to beginning litigation. He says he found out that neither he nor other shareowners were listed on the FAA registration, and Ascension was listed as the sole owner. He also discovered there were two liens against his tail at the time.
He believes the aircraft was “more than 100% committed” by at least 30%, and while he and other owners couldn’t get availability, Larkins was selling jet card hours on the aircraft, something he apparently is continuing to do.
Randall F. Hafer, an Atlanta lawyer, said he signed on buying a share in N927CS in 2013. He says as his term was expiring in 2017 he became concerned that there was no news on his SR22 being sold.
He said Larkins told him that he had three new SR22s on order from Cirrus, yet Ascension would cancel his flight on short notice, citing mechanicals. Frustrated, he told Larkins to stop charging him the monthly management fee. He said it continued for another month before stopping, and while Larkins promised him a refund, he never received it.
Further, he says in accessing FAA records, he says he was surprised to learn Larkins had registered Ascension as being the whole owner of his SR22, instead of listing the fractional shareholders. He also says the airplane was used as collateral for a loan.
An executive with Aero Specialty Finance, LLC said the company did make a loan to Ascension Air Management, Inc. in April 2018, on three Cirrus aircraft. The tail numbers were N928CS, N941CS, and N927CS. He declined to specify the amount of the loan but said it was based on the belief that Ascension was the rightful owner of the airplanes that were being used as collateral.
A former Ft. Lauderdale-based lease member said his experience started fine, but in 2017 availability became a problem, and when he wanted to terminate his lease, the company was unresponsive and continued to debit his bank account although he was unable to book flight time. He said only once he threatened legal action did he get a response.
A subscriber of Private Jet Card Comparisons (Ascension is not part of our database of more than 50 jet card providers), who said he hadn’t been able to contact the company in the past week, says he hasn’t been able to book flight time recently, or his flights were canceled on short notice.
A former jet card member from Florida who left after using his hours last year said he had heard from other members about availability issues. He says he had renewed his jet card membership twice, buying a total of 75 hours, and echoed others who said, that initially, things went well, but in 2017 availability dropped off. One customer said he was only able to access his aircraft for 32% of his requests despite being promised over 95% by Larkins.
While as recently as two years ago Ascension was getting ratings of four and five stars on Google in the past year, all five reviews posted gave the company only one star. Complaints included last-minute cancellations and lack of response.
Mark Snead, who is listed on Linkedin as being a resident of Ft. Lauderdale, wrote on Google, “Stay away! Had to file a lawsuit to get any response.” He didn’t respond to an email request through his personal website.
One former employee, who asked not to identified, said he and other workers had filed complaints last year with the Department of Labor about unpaid wages. He said other former employees and contract pilots were also owed money by the company, although that could not be confirmed. Two former employees confirmed the company was frequently late in paying them.
There appears to be one current lawsuit filed against Ascension charging breach of contract, fraudulent misrepresentation, negligent misrepresentation, breach of fiduciary duty, theft, and violations of the Georgia Rico act, which covers racketeer influenced and corrupt organizations.
It states, on January 5, 2017, Ascension and Air JP entered into a Fractional Purchase, Management and Master Interchange Agreement signed by (John) Paulson as the manager for Air JP, and Larkins, the Defendant as the President and CEO of Ascension.
Larkins wrote via email, “Please know I’m happy to discuss by phone and also provide names and numbers by clients that are very happy with Ascension. We have plenty. I also have multiple vendors you can verify that Ascension is a legitimate business and done a significant amount of business with.”
He said he believes the complaints are tied to a competitor he says he is suing. However, despite multiple requests, Larkins did not provide any customer or vendors to speak with, nor did he provide further details on the lawsuit he referenced.
Larkins was profiled earlier this year by the Atlanta Business Chronicle for a story on how business leaders can get more meaning from their work life. His advice was, “Learn from everyone that you can, and apply what you believe is right for you in your life.”
Additional customers who declined to comment confirmed their experiences were similar to those outlined in this story. Several said they wished they had paid closer attention to the contracts they signed, including giving Ascension the right to sell jet card charters on their airplanes while they couldn’t get availability. One customer said in retrospect, he should have verified that his name was registered as an owner to the FAA, which apparently it was not.