The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

Local News

April 20, 2012

Airport Authority, pilots at odds over incidents

Improper landing reported to FAA

AUSTINBURG TOWNSHIP —  Pilots whose actions triggered incident reports at the Northeast Ohio Regional Airport last month say the reports are politically motivated by an airport authority that wants to eliminate general aviation from the Denmark Township facility.

However, Airport Authority President Dwight Bowden denies political motivation, and said Thursday that the Federal Aviation Administration has been advised of the improper landing incident that generated one of those reports.

Bill Koleno, a Titan Aircraft employee who landed his Alaskan “bush” aircraft crossways on the air strip last month, claims he did not violate any federal regulations. Nevertheless, an incident report was generated and Bowden said the authority has asked the FAA to investigate.

Bowden said that Koleno, who landed the plan perpendicular to the runway, endangered any pilots who were landing in a normal pattern.

“It’s an absolute matter of safety,” Bowden said.

Koleno claims that the unique nature of the tires on his aircraft, wind conditions and the airplane’s ability to land in a small space necessitated his actions.

An incident report involving a landing by Titan employee Ron Dalin also came before the authority last week. Dalin’s aircraft lost a tail wheel as it landed after the airport office had closed. The wheel went into a swamp, but Bowden said Dalin should have reported the incident by leaving a message on the airport’s answering machine.

Dalin points out that he did not violate any federal regulation. Bowden said the airport’s rules and regulations were revamped last year and require users to report any possible hazards. But Dalin points out that first-time users unfamiliar with the airport’s rules would not know to do that.

“That’s a more difficult situation,” Bowden admitted. He said the authority will make an effort to better communicate those rules to pilots, so they know to leave a message or otherwise notify an airport employee.

The pilots feel they were singled out because of their affiliation with Titan Aircraft, whose owner, John Williams, presented to commissioners last year a proposal to operate the airport. Williams said his proposal would have removed from taxpayers the burden of closing the money-losing operation’s revenue gap every year, typically around $100,000.

“We offered to take this debt away from the taxpayers, and it got shot down,” Williams said.

At the request of Commissioner Daniel Claypool, Williams last year prepared a proposed management agreement that would relieved the county of filling the revenue gap. The proposal went to the board for review.

As to what happened to the proposal after that, there are conflicting stories. Claypool said he saw the proposal and forwarded it to the airport authority.

“I don’t know what happened (to the proposal),” Claypool said. “I do know there was a written proposal.”

 Commissioner Joseph Moroski, who is the board’s representative to the authority, said a committee of himself and three authority members scheduled a meeting with Williams to receive his proposal, but Williams failed to show. Williams said they were running late and notified the committee of as much, but only one member was at the airport when they arrived.

The meeting was rescheduled with just Dwight Bowden and authority member Dave Price, Williams said. At that meeting, Bowden insisted Williams submit a business plan, which was going to cost $20,000.

“I knew at best I was going to break even,” Williams said. “So am I going to spend $20,000 on a business plan?”

Bowden said his recollection is that Titan brought no proposal to the first meeting but requested data from the authority on airport fuel sales and other revenue. Bowden said they did suggest a business plan be presented as part of the proposal, but that Williams never showed up at the second meeting.

“There was no proposal,” Bowden said. “There was nothing to talk about. We had no document; as far as I’m concerned, we had nothing.”

Williams said Titan’s efforts to rent a vacant hangar at the airport also have received the cold shoulder. The authority wanted $1,200 a month for the hangar; Williams offered $650 with the contingency that if a better offer came along from another tenant, Titan would move out. Titan wanted the hangar as a location for its custom aircraft propeller business, which would have generated more traffic and, presumably, fuel sales at the airfield.

Several years after Titan presented its offer to the authority, the hangar remains empty, Williams said.

“In my mind, from a business standpoint, that is absurd,” Williams said.

Koleno said the authority also positioned itself as the most expensive source for fuel among regional airports, with the exception of Cuyahoga County, which has amenities Northeast Ohio Regional does not. As of Wednesday afternoon, Cuyahoga County was at $5.99 a gallon, Ashtabula at $5.90 and Meadville at $5.67. A Youngstown airport was selling it for $5.48.

The pilots said the airport authority chased out many of the hangar tenants last year with the implementation of new contracts, regulations and higher rental rates. Williams owns the Germack Airport south of Geneva, and its hangars are full as a result of pilots relocating from Northeast Ohio Regional. The airport also lost aircraft owners to Middlefield and Lost Nation.

Last week R.A. Wiedemann & Associates rolled out new marketing and business plans for the airport. Among the recommendations is lowering the price of hangar rentals, which would attract more customers and generate additional revenue.

Wiedemann’s plans cost more than $100,000 to develop. Bowden’s company paid for the work, which was commissioned after Williams said he would not spend the money on a business plan. Williams feels that Bowden effectively purchased control of the authority and airport by funding the plans and an aviation trust fund.

County commissioners Claypool and Peggy Carlo said they feel that Titan has much to offer the county airport if the personality conflicts could be set aside. But they also said that, apart from replacing the entire board, there is not much they can do to effect change at the airport. Carlo said she feels that the authority, which is not compensated, does a good job, but it needs to be more inclusive.

“I think Titan could be a real asset to the airport,” Claypool said.

“I think we should make a second effort,” Carlo added.

“We’re open (to proposals),” Bowden said. “We’re a public entity, and if someone has a proposal, we’ll review it.”

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