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BWI appointment lacked oversight

Ricky Smith, the new CEO at BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport, walks through the terminal that is the home to Southwest Airlines.
Ricky Smith, the new CEO at BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport, walks through the terminal that is the home to Southwest Airlines.(By Joshua McKerrow, Staff)

The appointment of Ricky Smith as executive director of the Maryland Aviation Administration, the agency that runs Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport (BWI), has led to controversy in Annapolis as information has emerged out about his previous job record as director of Cleveland Hopkins International Airport.

Just months after his appointment to BWI's top position, news broke that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) had imposed $735,000 in fines against the City of Cleveland for not adequately staffing snow removal teams at the city's airport.

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This understaffing resulted in serious safety issues with the airport's runways, which the FAA claimed weren't cleared or treated with anti-icing chemicals in a timely manner. The agency also said Hopkins airport failed to notify airlines of runway problems and did not close off parts of the airport that were unsafe.

Any preventable safety lapses at airports should be taken very seriously, and Ricky Smith's role in understaffing runway snow removal crews should be closely examined. But there's also a systemic Maryland problem lurking behind the specifics of these violations: the lack of oversight in the selection process for a position that runs one of the state's most important assets in BWI Airport.

The Hogan administration, which already exhibited questionable judgment in its appointment of Secretary of Housing Kenneth Holt, appears to have handled Mr. Smith's appointment incredibly poorly. Maryland Secretary of Transportation Pete Rahn admitted to The Sun that he had somehow missed the FAA investigation at Hopkins airport during the vetting process. It is hard to believe that any vetting process could have missed these troubles. Three months prior to Mr. Smith's appointment, a story was published in the Cleveland press with the headline: "FAA investigating safety of [Cleveland Hopkins Airport] runway during winter." A simple Internet search or a call to the FAA would have easily revealed the issues under Mr. Smith's tenure.

Secretary Rahn also admitted to The Sun that the state had not conducted a national search to fill the position. Even if the Hogan administration had its eye on Mr. Smith, who was BWI's chief operating officer prior to taking the Cleveland job, a responsible hiring process would have surveyed the field to evaluate him against other candidates. That the Hogan administration apparently made no such effort is troubling.

Confirmation hearings in the Maryland House and Senate would almost certainly have brought the safety issues at Cleveland's airport to light. Such a process also could have facilitated public debate on other important questions about Mr. Smith's qualifications for the BWI director position, including the dramatic drop in passenger traffic that occurred at Hopkins airport under his watch. During his seven years as director, Hopkins' annual passenger traffic dropped from 11.5 million to 7.6 million — a stretch during which BWI traffic grew by 1.3 million.

Our union represents concessions workers at BWI. A public confirmation process would have allowed our members and other airport workers to hear directly from Mr. Smith about what value he places in their work.

Also troubling to our members is Mr. Smith's relationship with concessions manager Airmall USA. When Mr. Smith was chief operating officer at BWI, Airmall was brought in, and when he moved to the Cleveland airport, Airmall followed him there. Over the past five years, Mr. Smith has cut Airmall's minimum annual rent payment obligations to the City of Cleveland by $3 million.

Airmall remains at BWI, but the MAA has the opportunity to put the BWI concessions contract out to bid in 2017, or it can keep Airmall for at least another five years with no competitive bidding process. In this context, Mr. Smith's relationship with Airmall should be closely examined.

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But even more importantly, as stakeholders in the airport, our members are deeply invested in the overall success of BWI. We want a successful, growing and, most importantly, safe airport. It is not clear if that's the kind of airport we'll get under Mr. Smith.

The way this appointment was handled demonstrates the need for reform in the state of Maryland's selection process for MAA director. The process should be subject to confirmation and public vetting, and steps should be taken this upcoming session to make this reform. In the meantime, the state should launch a full investigation into Ricky Smith's qualification for the top role at BWI. And given the nature of his record at his previous job, this investigation needs to happen before the first snow.

Roxie Herbekian is president of Unite Here Local 7; her email is rherbekian@unitehere.org.

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