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Manager says airport is in ‘administrative crisis’

R.R. Branstrom Daily Press Delta County Airport Manager Robert Ranstadler gives a report on the status of the airport to the Delta County Board of Commissioners.

ESCANABA — Robert Ranstadler, who stepped into the position of Delta County Airport manager in October, spoke at length at the regular meeting of the Delta County Board of Commissioners Tuesday to reveal news he described as “negative and shocking” regarding the current status of administration at the Escanaba airport.

“Our airport is in a state of administrative crisis,” Ranstadler began. “From a regulatory compliance standpoint with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), we are nearing being out of compliance and in violation of several federal regulations.”

He explained that he knew when he took up the job that there were issues that would need to be handled, but that he has been so consumed with trying to get the airport into a state of compliance — “specifically, working with the FAA, MDOT and other regulatory bodies that make sure that our airport remains functioning and is not the target of any civil suits or enforcement actions” — that there has not been the opportunity to tackle much else.

“I cannot speculate as to how the airport arrived at the situation that it is in,” said Ranstadler. He outlined the general procedure of FAA audits, wherein it is accepted practice for an airport manager to submit certain documents to the inspector ahead of time. When Delta County Airport’s previous manager vacated the position unexpectedly in the beginning of June, the people left in charge reportedly did the best they could but were unprepared. Not only did no one provide documentation to the FAA prior to the physical inspection, current staff has been struggling to locate the necessary materials. And if there are no records of mandatory trainings — even if personnel completed them — it’s as if they never happened.

“The complete lack of organization and record keeping — I was pretty shocked, in a state of disbelief, my first couple days on the job,” Ranstadler said. “We have numerous missing records at the airport, which has forced us to go back and repeat training, generate new records. Half of my existence in time spent at the airport the past two months has really been in an investigative capacity, trying to uncover old records, trying to connect the dots, trying to figure out what we can do to solve these problems.”

While audits are done annually, Ranstadler said the FAA doesn’t do deep investigations if things appear to be running smoothly on the surface. It seems that only recently did the issues become too overwhelming to miss.

“In the case of this last inspection,” said Ranstadler, “understandably the inspector was very frustrated, had serious concerns about … how the airport was being managed. So he I believe went and he dug as deep as he could and found a laundry list of issues that were probably — may have been, you know, building upon prior issues in the past, but I can tell you there is a significant absence — It’s almost like a vacuum of records just having completely disappeared or not being kept up since early 2021.”

The FAA issued Delta County Airport a letter of investigation (LOI) this summer. Ranstadler explained that such a letter is “not indicative of legal action” and is more of a “warning.” Essentially, an LOI identifies problems found — or suspected — during an inspection and implores the recipient to rectify them.

Reassuring commissioners and the public that there was not an immediate danger of the airport being shut down, Ranstadler said, “There’s a tremendous group of people that are working at the airport who are heavily invested in their jobs. They do their jobs extremely well on a daily basis, and the information I’m sharing here, although it is negative in nature for the most part, I will say that there’s there’s no danger to the traveling public; we continue to operate the airport in a safe manner.” He said that there were a number of positive milestones that had been accomplished since he stepped into the management role.

That said, revocation of the airport’s operating certificate is a possible eventuality if the suspected regulatory issues are not corrected.

Another non-compliant item at the airport that is in the process of being handled has been the lack of a Refueler Overfill Shutdown System for use on the fuel tank and truck. The airport began accepting proposals a few months ago and received only one bid. Therefore, the contract will be going to Sparling Corporation out of Taylor, Mich., who should be installing a system for $20,130.

In addition to regulatory failings at the airport, Ranstadler reported missing funds. About $180,000 worth of income that should have been collected over the last three years or so does not appear to exist anywhere the new airport manager has looked — at first he thought it might have found its way into another account, but it may have simply not been collected.

With almost every ticket purchased in the U.S. comes a passenger facility charge (PFC) of up to $4.50. Ranstadler said that the PFC account at Delta County Airport has been in a non-collection status since November of 2020, indicating a possible failure of communication with MDOT and the FAA or lack of proper contract.

“That account is at the highest level of audit status with the FAA in Washington D.C., and we have a consultation company that is currently working to resolve that issue. They have been for the past several months, but it represents a significant loss of revenue,” Ranstadler said.

When asked what could be done to aid efforts at Delta County Airport, Ranstadler said that it would be helpful to have the assistance of temporary employees to ease his load at least until the majority of the compliance issues were sorted.

Steps to improve the state of affairs at the airport were taken later in the meeting, when commissioners agreed to accept an MDOT contract amendment and to enter into a contract with Mead and Hunt, a consultation company.

Other business at Tuesday’s meeting included the following:

– Multiple comments were given on the state of the Cornell Forest Recreational Property. Complaints stated that closed gates made recreation areas — which the public should legally be able to visit –inaccessible. Joe Kaplan from the Delta Conservation District — which has a management agreement for the land until the end of the year — also expressed concern about liabilities associated with potentially hazardous ponds in the area.

– A motion agreed upon on Sept. 19 regarding the order of legal counsel to the county was rescinded. The debate of what attorney(s) to contact when is still ongoing.

– Commissioners agreed to form a standing committee of 11 members to act as an “opioid taskforce.” This group will confer with experts, gather information on community needs and “address the changing drug use and overdose environment” in a way that strengthens prevention, reduces harm and supports recovery.

– A suggestion by Commissioner Steven Viau to recognize new businesses that open in Delta County, whether they join the Chamber of Commerce or not, was supported by the board. They intend to present certificates to new businesses as thanks for their contributions to the local economy and community.

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