Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Federal Aviation Administration investigating Cleveland-Hopkins International Airport (KCLE) for 12 safety-related incidents

CLEVELAND, Ohio -- Cleveland Hopkins International Airport is under investigation for 12 safety-related incidents during the past two winters, according to interviews with airport officials and public records.

After the first three events, during the 2013/2014 winter, Hopkins entered into a "snow and ice control plan" with the Federal Aviation Administration that spells out the number of field maintenance employees that must be on duty to clear runways and taxiways, depending on a color-coded ranking of weather conditions.

For example, during a yellow code -- with an estimate of greater than 1 to 4 inches of dry or wet snow -- there are supposed to be four airport operations workers and 26 field maintenance employees.

The plan was put in place in November 2014. Another nine safety-related incidents followed, involving planes that had to divert for various reasons or that reported poor or "nil"--– bad or nonexistent -- braking conditions on airfield pavement.

In an interview Tuesday, Hopkins Director Ricky Smith and Airport Commissioner Fred Szabo said the events triggered a total of four FAA "letters of investigation" -- notices that the FAA thinks Hopkins may have violated one or more federal aviation regulations. Airport officials responded to all the letters, providing information such as timelines and proof of runway surface inspections and a breakdown of airfield staffing.

Hopkins is waiting to hear back from the FAA and hopes to have the investigations closed in coming months.

In no case was the flying public at risk, nor did any of the incidents involve insufficient staffing, Smith said. Claims to the contrary are coming from a disgruntled employee who "has been on a mission to create this narrative that there are safety issues at the airport," he said.

Staffing rules "not an absolute"

Nonetheless, the airport has struggled to meet the snowfall staffing standards. On Jan. 5, for example, under a yellow code, there were 12 field maintenance employees on the second shift and 14 on the third shift, not the 26 that were supposed to be on each shift, according to a performance indicator for the month provided by an airport employee. The indicator shows that at least six times in January 2015 the airport "failed" staffing levels.

Smith said the color-code system is not an absolute, but a range. As to whether the FAA allows some leeway, Smith said, "We have not heard from the FAA that it is a problem."

Szabo said of the plan, "I would describe it more as a living document. If we need to make any modifications, we'll do it in cooperation with the FAA."

Hopkins has a self-imposed target to complete an update to its snow and ice plan by Nov. 1, Szabo and Smith said.

Diversions of planes are not unusual at cold-weather airports, Smith said. Factors other than airfield conditions, such as the type of aircraft scheduled to land and pilot familiarity with low-visibility conditions, can prompt a pilot to divert to another airport. Medical, mechanical and other emergencies also can lead to diversions.

Smith said Hopkins has made enormous progress in reducing safety incidents in the past 10 years, in part by extending one of its runways by more than 2,000 feet and reconfiguring taxiways to avoid incursions, when airplanes enter runways without authorization.

The Bureau of Transportation Statistics shows 28 diversions at Hopkins for January through March of this year, not the 10 reported by Hopkins. Airport spokeswoman Michele Dynia said Hopkins is only aware of diversions within its air space -- a 20-mile radius around the airport -- not those that may occur en route.

Here's the BTS tally of diversions at 10 northern airports for the first three months of 2015:

Columbus -- 7; Pittsburgh -- 7; Buffalo -- 4; Cincinnati -- 3; Minneapolis -- 11; Milwaukee -- 14; Chicago O'Hare -- 55; Chicago Midway -- 86; LaGuardia -- 114; Boston -- 30.

Szabo gave these description of some of the incidents at Hopkins from the 2013/2014 winter:

December 30, 2013: The pilot of a Delta plane that landed reported nil braking on a taxiway. "In that instance we found we had proper staffing. One operations supervisor failed to close a piece of pavement that should have been closed," Szabo said. The worker was disciplined and left the airport soon after.

January 18, 2014: An aircraft rescue vehicle, driven by a 24-year veteran of Hopkins, crossed into an active runway during a training exercise. "An incursion does not mean a near miss," Smith said. Szabo noted there was no aircraft nearby. The employee was disciplined for failure to understand his surroundings.

The aircraft diversions in 2015 were:

January 21 – A United Express regional jet was diverted because of extremely low visibility. The diversion occurred during a 30-minute stretch when Hopkins had both its main runways closed to clear accumulated snow.

February 5 – Two United mainline jets and five United regional carriers were diverted during a heavy snowstorm with poor visibility and a low cloud ceiling. The diversions occurred during 22 minutes when Hopkins had both its main runways closed.

March 1 – The pilot of an Air Wisconsin regional plane that landed reported bad taxiway braking, leading air traffic controllers to cancel takeoff clearance for an Express Jet and give go-round instructions to a Delta aircraft.

Original article can be found here:

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