Those in the private aviation community likened today’s meeting among the Newport Airport Advisory Committee, airport staff and pilots as a kind of “Shoot-out at the OK Corral.”
It came close. But nobody was seriously wounded. In fact, when most of the built-up anger and resentment was given a chance to vent, just about everybody felt a bit more hopeful about the prospects of the airport running better and pleasing most, if not all, of its customers.
As readers of the local news media have no doubt noticed, the Newport Airport has not been a happy place for quite a while. After former Airport Director Gene Cossey left last year for an airport management job back east, then-City Manager Jim Voetberg decided to not fill the vacancy in the interest of saving the city money. Voetberg basically split up the job between airport employees Lance Vanderbeck and Terry Dunham – Vanderbeck as airport operations manager and Dunham running the Fixed Base Operations which involves a lot of transient and home based aircraft fueling duties. Both Vanderbeck and Dunham said they were basically told by former City Manager Jim Voetberg “here’s your jobs and then dumped some manuals on our desks.”
Many agree that without a full time airport manager the atmosphere around the airport has become “excessively democratic.” Opinions and suggestions about how the airport should be run have been coming from a number of pilots and other airport hangers-on. Personal gripes and frustrations have also been mounting over whether the airport was living up to its economic development potential. Recent debates between pilots, mechanics and among city councilors (three of them are pilots) as well as airport employees have been feeding a growing witches brew of ill will and frequent flashes of less than pleasant differences of opinion. And just about everyone appears to be keeping score. Even Interim City Manager Ted Smith remarked that “I’ve been told by the Federal Aviation Administration that certain things need to be dealt with at the Airport. But when I talk to local pilots they claim that the FAA doesn’t know what they’re talking about or it doesn’t pertain to our airport.” At that juncture Smith cut to the chase – “We need an airport manager,” he said, “and the FAA agrees. And I’m going to ask the city council to agree that we hire one.”
Throughout the give and take of the session, Aiport Committeeman Mark Watkins, local businessman and pilot, was emphatic that there’s been a communications breakdown between airport users, airport employees, the airport committee and city hall. Watkins complained that there is a lot of aviation expertise on the committee and among airport users and yet it is seldom, if ever, tapped. Airport employees Lance Vanderbeck and Terry Dunham said several times that they too feel trapped in a no-win situation and that it’s time to listen and to try harder.
In the end, the advisory committee said they would be willing to meet as often as necessary to take the airport to a higher level, which includes taking the airport business plan more seriously while being open to new suggestions. There was also mentioned possibly purchasing video surveillance cameras for several spots around the airport that can be monitored remotely to ensure greater security. And Interim City Manager Ted Smith said he will be putting together a presentation to the city council to hopefully convince them that the airport has drifted for too long without a manager, someone who can intelligently organize the assets of the airport, including its human capital, toward a future made brighter by a fully functional airport with everybody pulling together rather than trying to pull the place apart.