Six labor unions at Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport have asked Maryland lawmakers to review the recent appointment of Ricky D. Smith as the airport’s chief executive, citing federal allegations about unsafe icy and snowy runways during Smith’s leadership at the Cleveland airport.
The unions — representing workers who maintain runways, staff airport stores and restaurants, prepare airline meals and drive shuttle vans — say they’re concerned about passenger safety and “their work environment if understaffing becomes an issue at BWI.”
Ian Mikusko, a spokesman for Unite Here, which represents airport retail, restaurant and airline catering workers, cited the Federal Aviation Administration’s proposal in September to fine the city of Cleveland $735,000 for insufficiently staffing snow and ice removal teams at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport while Smith was the airport’s director. Smith was appointed BWI’s executive director in July, after Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) fired BWI administrator Paul J. Wiedefeld, who served under Hogan’s predecessor, Gov. Martin O’Malley (D), and in a previous Democratic administration. (Wiedefeld is now the top contender to lead the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority.)
The FAA alleged that over a 15-month period ending in March, the Cleveland airport’s managers “failed on numerous occasions to keep the airport’s runways and taxiways safe and clear of snow and ice,” according to a Sept. 18 FAA news release. The agency said two planes were disabled on taxiways in December 2013 because of unsafe braking conditions due to freezing rain, hours after the airport’s maintenance staff had been sent home. In January 2014, the agency said, another plane slid on ice during a training exercise and was unable to stop before it crossed into another runway just as another plane was taking off. In February 2014, the FAA said, the Cleveland airport closed after a pilot reported “poor to non-existent braking conditions.”
The FAA worked with the Cleveland airport’s management to update its snow and ice control plan, including sufficient staffing, the agency said. Even under the new plan, the airport allegedly didn’t have the required number of maintenance and airport operations staff on duty 19 days between Jan. 5 and March 1. On March 1, the agency said, ice prevented a plane from “quickly exiting the runway.”
An FAA spokeswoman said Wednesday that Cleveland officials have requested a meeting about the allegations, which is considered standard.
BWI spokesman Jonathan Dean said Smith was unavailable for an interview Wednesday.
“Mr. Smith is focused on leading BWI Marshall Airport forward,” Dean wrote in an email. “BWI Marshall continues to grow and succeed. We are on pace for a record year for passenger traffic.”
A Sept. 23 Baltimore Sun article about the icy runway problems in Cleveland quoted Smith saying, “At no point did I feel the airfield was unsafe, and I still maintain that position.”
The Maryland Department of Transportation was not aware of any ice or snow problems at the Cleveland airport before hiring Smith, and he didn’t mention them before he was appointed, according to an e-mail Wednesday from Transportation Secretary Pete K. Rahn.
Rahn said Smith’s “lengthy experience” in Maryland made him “imminently qualified” to lead BWI. Before taking the Cleveland job in 2006, Smith served as BWI’s chief operating officer. He worked for nearly 20 years for the Maryland State Highway Administration and the Maryland Aviation Administration, officials said.
“The Cleveland airport challenges resulted from inadequate resources beyond his control,” Rahn said in the e-mail. “At BWI Marshall, the Maryland Department of Transportation will ensure the airport has the resources it needs to provide good customer service and safe, reliable operations.”
Mikusko said the BWI labor unions have asked members of the Maryland General Assembly to review Smith’s appointment “as an immediate action item” and to require lawmakers to confirm future appointments to the airport’s top job. The unions said they’re also concerned about reports that the Cleveland maintenance worker who reported the staffing problems to the FAA was demoted.
Doug Mayer, a spokesman for Hogan, wrote in an e-mail: “This is nothing more than politics, and responding to these claims is a complete waste of state resources and taxpayer dollars. It is hard to believe that [the unions] can call for an investigation into things they admit haven’t occurred and keep a straight face. The administration will remain focused on running BWI in the most effective and efficient manner possible.”
This post has been updated.