Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Internal memo details runway snow removal dysfunction at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport (KCLE)


CLEVELAND, Ohio - A new complaint filed with the Federal Aviation Administration against Cleveland Hopkins International Airport includes an internal memo, detailing widespread dysfunction among airfield maintenance and snow removal teams and raising questions about whether recent runway shutdowns could have been avoided.

The complaint also questions whether the city and airport have violated the terms of a recent settlement with the FAA in which Hopkins pledged to improve its snow and ice removal operations after the FAA found the airport had failed to adequately staff its crews and de-ice runways. 

City and airport officials said in an interview Wednesday that the FAA assured them that there is no open investigation involving the new complaint.

Officials went on to say that circumstances that gave rise to the critical memo are under review. But they emphasized that at no time during the incident in question were aircraft or the traveling public imperiled, because airport personnel made the right call to close the runway when the results of surface friction tests warranted it.

Attorney Subodh Chandra filed the latest complaint Wednesday on behalf of airport employee Abdul-Malik Ali, who contends that he was demoted and relegated to a "mop closet" office after he drew the FAA's attention to the snow removal problems in 2015.

The FAA eventually determined that Ali's allegations regarding snow removal failures were substantiated. His demotion is the subject of an investigation pending before the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

At the heart of the new complaint is a Jan. 4 memo from field maintenance manager Robert Henderson to members of his crew, asking for their input in solving a litany of problems that arose when a snowstorm hit Dec. 30, during the second shift. 

Here were the problems, as Henderson enumerated them:

Radio communication (Radios were on the wrong channel, not working, or missing all together.)

Situational awareness off (We had 3 trucks run off the runway into the safety area.)

Employees not following instructions (Members of the Ramp and Runway teams were not following instructions from foreman)

Members of leadership still not taking ownership of their full responsibilities (Not properly directing team members during operations)

Leadership losing focus in mid task (Fuel pump incident)

The airport had to temporarily close due to poor runway conditions (Could we have prevented this from happening?)

When situations happen, the manager and superintendents have to respond or report to the airport to help in the mitigation of the problem.

Proper placement of experience to non-experience personnel in our snow operations is a must at all times.

Proper application of chemicals is a must at all times.

Henderson closed his memo by calling upon the crew to respond with at least two solutions to each problem.

It's unclear whether the deficiencies described in the memo contributed to the decision to close the runway on Dec. 30 or how long it was closed.

Newly appointed Airport Director Robert Kennedy, who was sworn in last week, told Wednesday that he has spoken with Henderson to gain a better understanding of the problems described in the memo and that he's committed to fully investigating the matter.

Kennedy said the airfield maintenance crews have been subject to months of accredited training. But for some reason, the training "didn't stick" on Dec. 30 -- and he wants to know why.

"I don't know yet the good, the bad and the ugly," Kennedy said. "But I do know this -- I am going to get knee deep in this, and we will look at all the aspects."

He said he will personally review the manner in which the airport's FAA-approved snow and ice control plan is being executed and the qualifications of the people responsible for it. He also said he would consider inviting experts from another major airport to conduct a "peer review" of operations at Hopkins with an eye toward improvement.

And from now on, Kennedy said, any decision to close the runways must be approved by him.

The FAA complaint and release of the memo comes on the heels of airport officials' decision earlier this month to hold off on treating the airfield with de-icing chemicals in anticipation of an ice storm - a decision that caused the airport to shut down for nearly two hours, delaying flights throughout the day.

In the aftermath of that incident, Assistant Airport Director Fred Szabo told that high winds would have scattered the chemicals before they could be effective.

Crews at Akron-Canton Airport, however, faced similar wind conditions and did pretreat the runway and taxiways. That airport did not shut down when freezing rain hit.

Szabo, last week, cautioned against comparing airports, especially of such dramatically different scales. He said he had asked his team of experienced field maintenance foremen and operations supervisors if, in hindsight, they would have handled the situation differently. He said they told him, "most likely not."

But the newly filed FAA complaint questions how experienced members and leaders of the field maintenance team really are.

The complaint asserts that at least four foremen at Hopkins had never before worked at an airport leading crews, and that Henderson has no relevant experience qualifying him to lead the airport's field maintenance division.

The complaint also says that Deputy Commissioner Eric Turner was the custodial manager before he was promoted to oversee field maintenance. Before coming to Hopkins, Turner worked at a Staples office supply store, the complaint states.

In the fall of 2015, requested the personnel files of Henderson, Turner and other airport personnel, but has not received them.

The complaint suggests that the hiring of unqualified staff and deficient training violate FAA requirements. And it calls for constant FAA oversight of the day-to-day operations at Hopkins, a review of training and qualifications of airfield maintenance personnel, and for the FAA to re-impose the full civil penalty assessed against the city in 2015.

The FAA initially had sought to levy a $735,000 penalty, which would have been the heftiest fine ever imposed against an airport. But the parties settled the matter in May, when the city agreed to pay a $200,000 fine.

"The FAA's agreement with Hopkins reducing by $535,000 the civil penalty for the previous violations Mr. Ali reported was, in retrospect, unwise," Chandra wrote. "Simply put, the FAA got snookered by Hopkins management's empty promises and lack of candor."

In September 2015, the FAA slapped Hopkins with four letters listing dozens of dates when staffing at the airport fell far short of requirements, leaving inches of snow and ice uncleared from the taxiways and runways.

Some of the most egregious infractions stemmed from March 1, 2015, when the airport's field maintenance crew was understaffed on all shifts -- with only four out of the required 18 maintenance operators working third shift -- despite a forecast calling for several inches of snow.

As a result, snow and ice accumulated on runways, pilots refused to land, reporting poor braking conditions, and one taxiway went without anti-icing chemicals until well after midnight, the FAA found.

The airport also failed to alert air carriers of the poor conditions and to deter planes from taxiing or landing on slick, hazardous surfaces, according to the FAA letters.

Since then, Hopkins officials have assured the FAA and the traveling public that the airport is ready for snow, with an expanded staff that had been training since May and 19 new snow removal vehicles purchased in the past two years.

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