Friday, January 22, 2016

Incident occurred January 17, 2016 at Cleveland-Hopkins International Airport (KCLE), Cleveland, Cuyahoga County, Ohio

CLEVELAND, Ohio -- A Cleveland Hopkins Airport airfield maintenance worker drove a city vehicle across an active runway Sunday and passed beneath an aircraft that was taking flight.

Cleveland Director of Port Control Fred Szabo said in an interview Thursday that the airfield "incursion" prompted an immediate investigation into the matter.

Szabo described the incident as isolated -- boiling down to the "judgment of one person" -- and said it should not be a reason for the traveling public to doubt the safety of the airport's runways.

"I'll maintain this has always been a safe airport," he said. "This appears to be a human failing, and those dynamics are always out there. It's our responsibility to make sure employees are trained and competent. But the safety of the airport was never compromised."

The incursion comes as Cleveland awaits a final Federal Aviation Administration ruling on whether the city owes hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines for failing to adequately staff snow removal teams and de-ice runways at Hopkins on dozens of occasions during the past couple winters.

During the Sunday incident, a city worker driving an SUV was supposed to be helping crews plow snow from a closed runway when he entered a parallel airfield without permission from air traffic control -- ignoring a series of lights and barriers indicating that the runway was active, Szabo said.

An aircraft was departing and had just lifted off when the SUV passed beneath, Szabo said.

In recorded air traffic control chatter, a controller can be heard abruptly ordering the driver to stop. Another voice can be heard asking what happened, and the controller responds, "He just crossed the runway, and an aircraft was taking off." 

Seconds before the SUV is spotted on the runway, a controller can be heard on the recording clearing a Southwest Airlines flight for takeoff. It's unclear whether that was the flight that took off over the SUV.

Szabo said union rules prevent him from naming the worker involved until disciplinary proceedings have concluded. But he said that the employee is a 13-year veteran of the airport's staff and has never failed an annual airfield-driving test. He said the worker was ordered off his shift immediately and remains on administrative leave.

Szabo said he does not know whether drug or alcohol testing of a driver is required after airfield incursions, but he added that he is seeking to answer that question as part of the internal investigation.

Szabo said the airport already has ruled out visibility problems, dysfunctional lights or unclear signage as contributing factors.

The airport immediately reported the incident to the Federal Aviation Administration, Szabo said. It's unclear how the FAA will handle the case.

In September 2015, the FAA sent Szabo four letters related to the agency's concerns about runway plowing in recent winters.

FAA officials listed dozens of dates when, the agency contends, staffing at Hopkins fell short of requirements spelled out in an FAA agreement, leaving inches of snow and ice uncleared from the taxiways and runways.

The infractions led to a $735,000 proposed civil penalty, which city officials contested in a written response, arguing that the violations either did not occur or do not warrant the steep penalties imposed.

Szabo said Thursday that city and airport officials recently attended a "final" meeting with the FAA on the matter. He said the agency asked for additional documentation, which he provided, and that he expects the case to conclude soon.

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