Cleveland's international airport has been fined $735,000 by the Federal Aviation Administration for repeatedly failing to keep its runways safe during the administration of its former chief, who was hired by Gov. Larry Hogan this summer to run BWI Marshall Airport.
The FAA action this month comes after Cleveland Hopkins International Airport and its former director, Ricky D. Smith Sr., were accused in a complaint to the U.S. Labor Department of illegally retaliating against the whistle-blower who brought some of the problems to light. The employee reported to his superiors and the FAA that the airport was failing to live up to its federal operating agreement to keep runways free of snow and ice.
Hogan announced in July that he had fired BWI administrator Paul Wiedefeld, an appointee of Gov. Martin O'Malley who had run the airport since 2009, and replaced him with Smith, a former BWI chief operating officer who took over Cleveland Hopkins in 2007. Smith is now on the job at BWI. His appointment is not subject to confirmation by the Maryland Senate
State Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn, who oversees BWI, said Wednesday he was not aware of the FAA investigation when he hired Smith and that Smith did not disclose the runway issues or the whistle-blower complaint during the hiring process. The FAA announced the fine last week.
Rahn said that after learning about the matter, he got an explanation of the issues from Smith and is confident he is the right person to run the Maryland Aviation Administration.
"Had I known about these [issues] before the appointment, and given the explanation I've been given, I would make the same decision," Rahn said. He acknowledged that Smith was hired without the type of national search that is often conducted in hiring for such positions.
Smith defended his track record in Cleveland during an interview Wednesday with The Baltimore Sun."At no point did I feel the airfield was unsafe and I still maintain that position," he said.
He declined to answer questions about the retaliation complaint, pointing to the city of Cleveland's legal rebuttal claiming it had no merit. "I stand by any action that I took with respect to that employee," Smith said. That complaint is still being investigated.
As director in Maryland, Smith earns $294,304. He had been Cleveland city government's highest-paid employee, earning $234,000.
The FAA on Sept. 14 notified the city of Cleveland, which owns Hopkins airport, that it violated federal regulations in four cases the agency investigated. Each involved the airport's failure to properly treat and clear its runways.
In the most serious case, subject to a $555,000 fine, the agency accused the airport of failing to provide "sufficient and qualified personnel" to comply with its federally required Snow and Ice Control Plan on 19 dates between Jan. 5 and March 1.
The FAA singled out the events of March 1, when an Air Wisconsin flight found upon landing that braking conditions were so poor it had to remain on a runway where an Express Jet flight had been cleared for takeoff. According to the agency, that delay forced an air traffic controller to cancel the Express Jet takeoff and to abort the landing of an inbound Delta flight.
According to the FAA, the Cleveland airport:
•Had fewer workers on duty than called for in its agreement, including one shift where only 4 of the required 18 maintenance operators were on duty.
•Failed to carry out snow and ice removal on a Priority 1 runway and taxiway as required by its plan.
The cumulative fine is among the largest imposed by the FAA on a single airport. Cleveland has until the middle of October to pay the fine or seek a settlement.
A spokeswoman for Cleveland Hopkins declined to answer questions for this article. She pointed to a statement released by the city when the FAA made its findings, saying officials are reviewing the matter and preparing responses.
According to legal filings in the whistle-blower case, the FAA investigation stemmed in part from concerns raised by Abdul-Malik Ali, the former manager of field maintenance at Hopkins. Ali told an FAA inspector in February that the airport had systematically failed to maintain required staffing levels during snowy weather, the records say. When he returned to work the next day, Ali was handed a letter signed by Smith immediately removing him from the position he had held since 2000, according to the complaint.
Ali's lawyer, Subodh Chandra, wrote that Ali was reassigned to a new job in which his office was a "mop closet" and his duties were primarily "makework" assignments such as counting trash cans. The complaint also alleges various other forms of workplace retaliation, including reduction of his security clearance and having his city vehicle taken away.
Ali is now seeking reinstatement, compensatory damages and attorney's fees in a case before the U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Administration.
"Mr. Ali has performed a valuable service for the flying public by divulging information to the FAA that the airport was determined to conceal," Chandra wrote "The airport nevertheless retaliated against him, immediately and dramatically."
Cleveland officials, in their response to Ali's complaint, denied that he was a true whistle-blower because, they said, Smith had kept the FAA informed of the airport's staffing problems.
"The [city] has always been open and honest about this issue with the FAA. [Cleveland] does not try to hide information from the FAA and would have no reason to discipline or discriminate against an employee for informing the FAA of facts that [it] already made the FAA aware of," the city's legal brief said.
In an interview, Chandra said Smith's hiring at BWI reflected a failure by the Hogan administration to properly vet the appointment. If Maryland had done a proper background check and made a public records request, it would have learned about Hopkins' runway problems and Smith's record of retaliation, he said. Cleveland news outlets reported last May — more than a month before Smith's appointment was announced — that the airport was being investigated by the FAA.
Rahn denied there had been any breakdown in the vetting process. He said he sought an explanation from Smith after learning about the FAA issues this week and was told the understaffing was the result of budget cuts imposed by the city of Cleveland.
"These things that happened I believe were the direct result of the resources he was provided," Rahn said. "The lack of resources is not going to be an issue at BWI."
Smith told The Sun the city required him to accept 35 job cuts at the airport, including some snow removal positions. He said he fought the cuts within the city administration but was overruled.
Robert David, an airport safety consultant in Fredericksburg, Va., said an airport director has to be prepared to shut down a runway or the entire airport if necessary — even if it means that airline executives are banging on the mayor's door.
"It's one of those things: What comes first? Keeping the airport open or the safety of the people on the airplanes?" said David, who formerly worked for the FAA on runway safety issues.
Sen. James E. "Ed" DeGrange, the Anne Arundel County Democrat who heads a Senate subcommittee overseeing transportation spending, said he had a good relationship with Smith during his earlier tenure at the airport but was surprised when Hogan, a Republican, fired Wiedefeld.
"The airport was doing so well," DeGrange said. "It just took everyone by surprise, and I still don't understand why they made that change."
In making the switch, Hogan turned to an executive who led Cleveland's airport during troubled times. During Smith's tenure at Hopkins from 2007 to 2014, passenger traffic there dropped from 11.5 million passengers to 7.6 million. Over that same period, BWI's traffic grew from 21 million to 22.3 million.
The factors in Hopkins' decline were not necessarily in management's control. A struggling Rust Belt city with a declining industrial base, Cleveland was hit harder than Baltimore by the recession. The airport's decline was exacerbated by United Airlines' decision to drastically scale back its hub there last year.
Smith said passenger levels in Cleveland have since rebounded and were up 17 percent year-to-year when he left the airport in August.
"I don't get too high on a passenger increase and I don't get too low ... when passengers are down," he said. The numbers, he said, are largely driven by economic cycles.
"Cleveland has an economy that's been struggling a very long time," he said. "It's a tough economy to grow."