Wednesday, January 12, 2011
Charlotte Douglas International Airport Manager's De-Icing Fiasco
Charlotte Douglas International Airport was operating on a heightened state of alert early Monday as the first flakes of snow began to fall across the runways, sidewalks and parking lots of the nation's 8th busiest airport. Extra staff and equipment were on hand to handle any amount of snow that fell, and there was a general feeling that the storm would pass without much disruption.
The airport is for the most part, a city unto itself, a city that has for years been the personal fiefdom of manager Jerry Orr. This is a place where there is a understandably close relationship between Orr and US Airways, as much as there is a long standing hands off relationship between Orr and the Charlotte City Council.
As the snow continued to fall on Manager Orr's kingdom all seemed well, except for one small detail. According to According to WFAE News reporter Julie Rose, de-icing equipment operators were noting a higher than normal consumption of fluid required to de-ice the aircraft.
It wasn't long before airport staff realized the amount of de-icing fluid on hand wasn't going to last if the snow kept dumping. Planes were reportedly icing over so fast that many were requiring three-times the usual amount of de-icing fluid.
Back in December Charlotte Douglas International's airport manager had touted the value of 28 new de-icing trucks that he had purchased, the cost over $10 million. (Charlotte Buys 28 De-Icing Trucks)
A little background:(On September 13, 2010, Charlotte City Council approved a three-year contract with Contego Systems, LLC to operate for the city a consolidated aircraft de-icing facility at the airport, without discussion. (interesting that the amount of the contract is x'd out at the CDIA advisory board web site which is here.)
The de-icing was traditionally handled by each airline, but Orr convinced US Airways that the city could do a better job. As part of the deal US Airways sold the city nearly $500,000.00 de-icing fluid left over from the 2009-2010 winter season.
Contego Systems, LLC then recommended that the Airport purchase twenty-eight (28) de-ice trucks and four (4) training simulators in order to provide adequate de-icing resources during winter weather events.
Orr's office released an invitation to bid on September 30, 2010 at the end of the bid period there was only one bidder Global Ground Support, Inc. and Charlotte City Council approved the purchase on November 8, 2010 with minimal discussion.
(Note: during that meeting Jerry Orr told City Council Members that Contego Systems would be responsible for the purchase of the fluid. (Jerry Orr: "We contracted September 13th with a third party that will maintain the trucks, operate them, buy the fluid, and do the whole operation.))
On Tuesday around 11 am, as the snow changed to light freezing rain US Airway's largest hub of flight operations came to a grinding halt. But it wasn't the snow or the ice, rather it was the lack of de-icing chemicals that shut down Contego/Charlotte's de-icing operation and US Airways flights. Jerry Orr's kingdom had run out of de-icing fluid.
The long wait for a fresh delivery of de-icing fluid had began. De-icing trucks remained parked as air crews and passengers called home to explain the sudden turn of events.
US Airways mangers reaction was predicable, they lied, making up any excuse to pacify passengers, because the truth that US Airways had hired the City of Charlotte to de-ice their planes and that the airport had run out of de-icing solution no one would ever believe.
If you happened to be a US Airways passenger looking out a terminal window on Tuesday you might have noticed unhappily that Delta and America flights were departing pretty much on time. Why?
The shocker is that last year US Airways signed a contract hiring the City of Charlotte to de-ice their planes while other airlines continued handle their own de-icing.
By late Tuesday more than 300 flights had been canceled, planes with CLT as a destination were diverted because they would not be able to depart again without being de-iced.
And those new state of the art de-icing trucks? Worthless, of the 28 that the airport had ordered for delivery only four were in Charlotte, and none were operational on Monday or Tuesday.
The winter weather that painted Charlotte as a slick white Christmas card was predicted no less than seven days out. In fact WCNC's Brad Panovich had been discussing the approaching storm via Twitter nearly non stop since January 4th.
According a report by WFAE News reporter Julie Rose "US Airways has yet to determine whether it will seek compensation from the Charlotte airport for revenues lost as a result of the deicing fluid shortage."
How much compensation? Figure 300 flights with an average of 84 passengers at an average ticket price of $435.00 and you get a number in excess of 10 million. Of course not all that revenue was lost, some passengers were re booked, but many flew on other airlines or made other arrangements. The total number and cost to Charlotte taxpayers will no doubt be staggering.
Cedars Take: Honestly why in the world is the city of Charlotte in the aircraft de-icing business? Why would every city council member vote in favor of approving the purchase of equipment that costs more than 10 million dollars and authorize the airport manager to start up a de-icing business and contract with US Airways?
Cedar Posts understands what happened. Jerry Orr's office took on a new scheme to get cash into the airport coffers.
De-icing I'm sure seemed like a lucrative business, the only thing is that propylene glycol alcohol is not cheap and becomes more expensive when it is just sitting around in tanks. And it has a somewhat limited shelf life. So why have a bunch of the stuff sitting around in tanks? It doesn't make sense to have thousands of gallons sitting around unless you plan on having a snow storm.
It seems that 3 days before the storm swept over Charlotte, the management of the nation's 8th busiest airport knew they had a problem, because forecasters were calling for a "major" winter storm and the supply of aircraft de-icing fluid left behind by US Airways was dangerously low.
So on January 7, 2010 Jerry Orr sent out an Invitation to Bid on "AIRCRAFT DEICING FLUID TYPE I".
But according to the WFAE report, Charlotte airport spokeswoman Haley Gentry stated that the airport quickly realized Monday night that its supply of de-icing fluid wouldn’t suffice.
"We started off with our tanks full, and you know, this may require us to change what we have on hand and look at some of our processes," said Gentry.
Gentry is of couse lying, or at least really streching the facts. The airport staff knew with an approaching storm that the supply of de-icing fluid on hand would not be enough a weel prior to the event and that is why the bid request went out on January 7, 2011.
Jerry Orr's operation had ordered the fancy new trucks but forgot to buy the de-icing fluid.
There are just some types of business the City of Charlotte shouldn't be in, one is de-icing aircraft. The risks far outweigh the rewards, not only are we responsible to US Airways but also to the passengers. Should an aircraft not be properly de-iced and have a fatal accident that liability would pass on to Charlotte's taxpayers.
After a week of weather hype in the local media, the heavens opened up and the storm dumped a sizable mixture of snow and freezing rain on the Queen city over a 48 hour period. In the end everyone was ready, that is everyone except Jerry Orr.