Relations have soured between private aviators who fly at Laramie Regional Airport and management. It’s a longtime dispute that’s flared up again over a new slate of rules and regulations being considered for the airport.
Private aviator Ian Adams considers the rules that have been drafted to be heavy-handed and lacking valuable input from the public who use the airport and stow their planes at its hangars. He and other aviators feel like they’re being treated as a problem rather than a solution.
Others like Laramie Mayor Brian Harrington say the new rules are simply a result of the airport attempting to get into compliance after a mismanaged and problematic past that reportedly includes dozens of FAA violations.
Out Of A Storm, But Into Another?
One of the few things all parties can agree on is that safety and compliance at the airport has at least somewhat improved.
The airport had 15 violations after its Federal Aviation Administration inspection in 2021, which it reduced to one violation in 2022.
“When commercial aircrafts are refueling and your gasoline hasn’t been tested to see if there’s water in it for years, as just one of the many examples of mismanagement, that’s a lot of lives you’re taking into one hand,” Harrington said.
Harrington hopes that people can step back from aspects of the airport’s management that they might not like and see “the greater good” for the future of the facility.
“When you think of accomplishments, that certainly has to be on that list,” Harrington said.
He also said some of the discontent stems from growing pains associated with bringing the airport into safety and regulatory compliance with the FAA.
“When you go from almost no rules to any rules at all it’s going to feel like a big change,” he said.
During an Albany County Commission meeting earlier this month, Airport Director Amy Terrell told the board that the facility had resolved 45 FAA violations from the past, but Adams said the number is grossly exaggerated.
Terrell did not respond to multiple requests for comment from Cowboy State Daily.
‘A Damn Mess’
Adams said the relationship between private aviators who use Laramie Regional Airport and management is “deeply flawed.”
It’s a rift that opened years ago and continues to impact the relationship between the airport and the private pilots who use it.
Albany County Commissioner Terri Jones was more blunt, calling it “a damn mess.”
Jones believes there is a power play happening between those running the airport and private pilots, but she can’t figure out the exact source of the friction. Jones said she has faith in Terrell’s ability to bring unity to the airport, but she said there are other factors playing in the background.
“They’re (aviators) being treated very badly by the airport,” she said. “Right now, there’s not any continuity with the airport and the pilots.”
Jones said when she proposed a deal that involved the airport apologizing to pilots and the pilots accepting the apology, she said she was met with a proverbial middle finger from the airport.
Adams said there is a perception among the private aviators that they have to always keep an eye on airport staff to prevent it from making decisions that are illegal, although most of the safety issues have been resolved.
“We’re at this point where our group fundamentally … wants to bring the temperature down, get it back under control,” he said.
Adams said Jones has been the only elected local official who has had meaningfully communication with their group.
New Rules And Letters
Adams said the rules and regulations must be deeply scrutinized as they are tied into FAA grants and regulations.
The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), a third-party general aviation advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., reviewed a draft of the new rules and found the document was not developed with any discernible input from airport users and aviation experts.
The organization recommended deferring finalization of the rules and regulations until this happens.
AOPA found that the draft didn’t incorporate FAA rules at the airport and also copied text from other airports’ rules in the region.
There was little response from the airport to this letter.
A Laramie Airport Users Association (LAUA) was formed earlier this year as part of an organized effort to alert the Laramie City Council and Albany County Commission about what was going on at the airport from their perspective.
Members of this group have experience as airline pilots, flight instructors, private pilots, air traffic controllers, charter flight operators, glider pilots, mechanics, pilot examiners, helicopter operators, FAA staff, airport business representatives and flight school owners and operators.
But Adams, who is president of LAUA, said these efforts of outreach, involving letters and testimony at public meetings, only deteriorated the aviator’s relationship further with the airport’s management.
Most of the communications LAUA sent to the airport’s board, Terrell and City Council were met with brief curt replies acknowledging receipt of the messages.
In a May letter to airport leadership, Adams said the lack of response to his group’s attempts at improving their relationship is a result of “legal advice barring communication with us based on a perception of the possibility of litigation.”
“Our group does not have representation, nor does the group have any intention of any type of litigation,” Adams writes.
But members of LAUA did bring up the threat of future litigation to try and encourage future cooperation from airport leadership in helping develop minimum standards at the airport.
Although City Council member Sharon Cumbie told Cowboy State Daily she was never advised by any party to forgo communicating with members of LAUA, member Micah Richardson told Adams in an email reviewed by Cowboy State Daily that he was advised to not meet with members of this group because the topic of litigation had previously been brought up by the pilots group.
Harrington said he doesn’t consider litigation a real risk from LAUA and hasn’t been given any directives not to speak to anyone. But he added he generally doesn’t speak to people who have threatened legal action.
“I’ll be cautious, I’ll continue to be cautious,” he said.
Adams said the hiring of an attorney to represent them and a handful of letters from his group to airport management sent their relationship with airport management into a nosedive.
“That set a pattern of our interactions with airport management that started to look fairly retaliatory to the members of our group,” Adams said.
What followed, Adams said, was a pattern of strict actions taken by management for what he felt were extremely minor violations, if violations at all. He said the airport’s management is now trying to cover these types of acts in the proposed rules.
One day last winter, Laramie aviator Thomas Bienz took off from the airport after being told by a staff member the airport was closed. The FAA refuted this claim to Bienz and said they received no notification that the airport was closed. Any airport closures must involve notification to the FAA.
Bienz said it was later discovered that although the airport said it had attempted to close its runways, it did so incorrectly so the FAA was never informed. Further, he said a pilot always has the discretion to take off from a closed runway if he or she chooses to fly at their own risk.
The airport’s attorney, Jodi Shea, sent Bienz a letter shortly after the incident, saying he was suspended by the airport for violating FAA rules and regulations. Bienz denied this claim, but the airport still reported him to the federal agency.
“At the end of the day, there’s just a very vindictive, authoritarian kind of behavior pattern, combined with incompetence and significant lack of knowledge on the FAA regulations and aviation in general,” Bienz said.
The FAA quickly resolved the matter and found Bienz committed no violations.
The airport still suspended Bienz from using and accessing his airplane for 30 days, saying he had violated airport rules and regulations. These rules didn’t exist at the time and currently not only aren’t published, but still don’t exist, Adams said.
“The airport has no rules and regulations,” Adams said. “They don’t exist.”
It is these rules that are now under review.
Also punitive, Adams said, was a new lease standard drafted for the airport’s private hangars with much stricter rules and higher rates.
“Now we’ve got the groundwork to a very, very poor relationship,” he said.
On June 21, Bienz submitted a 13-page formal complaint to the FAA on behalf of LAUA addressing many issues, including the airport’s treatment of private aviators and its hangar leasing agreements.
Adams said that although some members of his group are interested in investing in infrastructure or forming business relationships with the airport, they believe their relationship with airport management is too unstable to do so.
He believes Terrell should be giving strong consideration to the pilots’ suggestions, especially since she has almost no prior experience in aviation.
Harrington countered this argument, saying there is aviation experience among those who sit on the airport board. He also said the private aviators’ comments are being taken seriously and considered part of all the public comments submitted on the draft rules proposal. These rules are not expected to be finalized for another month.
“To say you’ve been excluded from a process that hasn’t been completed, I think is just a strange argument, and those people participated,” Harrington said.
Harrington said the fact that the submission of the letters dramatically slowed the public comment process is further evidence that they are being given credence.
Adams said another issue plaguing the airport is a lack of transparency from management.
During a discussion on a private hangar purchase, Adams said the airport board attempted to go into executive session to discuss it before it was pointed out that would be illegal.
The topic was tabled and without any further public discussion, immediately voted on at the board’s next meeting, where it was approved. Chuck Denison, the hangar owner, said that no prepurchase inspection was done or appraisal performed on the hangar.
“What we’re concerned with is we asked what the process (was) that happened to make that decision so we could understand it,” Adams said. “It doesn’t look good.”
Adams said there also have been issues with airport management not responding to the public’s basic questions.
“Just across the board, silence,” Adams said. “We are really being actively frozen out of the picture.”
Sordid Past And Present?
Terrell took over the airport in 2021 after a massive upheaval in management of the airport. Prior to her hiring, it had been revealed that no audits of the airport’s finances had been completed for three years previous, along with a slew of other rule infractions such as not having an employee manual.
“I will certainly acknowledge, and I think everyone in our group will acknowledge, that the situation the manager came into and the board inherited was an airport that was deeply out of compliance and had been for a little while,” Adams said.
Harrington said there was, for the most part, an incredible lack of rule enforcement altogether in the past, and in some cases people operating hangars without leases.
He said the construction of a new terminal was simply a facade to distract from the real issues happening there, which he said if allowed to continue would have resulted in the facility permanently shutting down because of its finances and mismanagement.
“The airport was in a pretty dark spot,” he said.
The former airport director was replaced, as was the entire airport board, of which Adams was a member.
But Adams said he and a few other members of the old board with aviation experience were the ones responsible for initially discovering and pointing out some of the major flaws ailing the airport, which he said were actively concealed by prior management.
The airport then hired a private consultant who found countless other flaws with the airport that they hadn’t previously been aware of.
With the help of the consultant and a concerted effort from staff, the airport was able to significantly reduce its FAA violations.
Jones and Adams agree that the infighting and friction at the airport does nothing to encourage people to join and invest in the facility.
“There is nobody nationally that would want to invest in this airport as long as there is all of this,” Jones said. “Our airport should be the aviation hub of southeastern Wyoming because that is how fine this airport is. But there is nobody who would want to invest in this airport until the issues between the airport and the private pilots are resolved.”
Harrington hopes the airport and its private users can find a middle ground someday. He believes the city needs to continue working with aviators to get to that place.
“I continue to hope there’s a path back, something tenable for everyone,” he said.
Leo Wolfson can be reached at Leo@CowboyStateDaily.com.