Saturday, February 08, 2014

Is California City the new Hemet?

I have only been to Cal City once, have never flown there, and don't know any of the people involved in the shutdown saga. All I know is what I've read in the Tehachapi group on Yahoo. But I was somewhat involved in and deeply affected by the Hemet shutdown, and some commentators have compared this to Hemet, so let me offer a few thoughts. Keep in mind that much of this is speculation. The chain of events are somewhat similar… maybe the underlying causes are similar too.

It is not really about airport safety. If it was about safety, then airport officials would work with the various aviation groups at the airport to effect improvements. Attempting to address safety issues when they are not really the issue is pointless. At Hemet, the officials refused to meet. Then when they lost the decision on our FAA complaint, they refused to negotiate in good faith. County officials chose to ignore CalTrans citations and recommendations for years until they could use them to their advantage. This appears to have happened at Cal City as well.

It is not really about airport growth. If it was about airport growth, there would be studies and consultants and estimates to support it. The airport officials would develop an airport plan which could be responsibly implemented. At Hemet, the airport officials published a sham plan which ignored the history of soaring and the huge fraction of airport operations which were due to glider operations. The plan postulated growth in other operations which were totally unsupported by any studies or statistics. The plan was developed with no input from airport users, and published silently with no notice to the public to invite comments.

The motivation is probably personal gain, not the public interest. People do not resort to underhanded tactics for honorable goals. At Hemet, the county made a deal with the FBO to help get rid of the commercial, club, and private gliders. The county put pressure on other FBOs to not deal with the gliders. The county insisted on applying FBO standards to clubs. The county refused to offer leases to clubs, insisting on month-to-month rentals but requiring renters to invest in infrastructure, which they could lose on 30 days' notice. The county ignored strong cautions in the environmental impact study they themselves commissioned. The county was willing to place turboprop aircraft operations within 100 feet of residences. They were clearly highly motivated to get rid of the gliders and pursue other changes at all cost. Our task was to figure out why.

The airport officials may not be aviators. They do not know what works for aviators, and may not care. They have other motivations which we do not understand. They may be judged by how much they increase revenue or reduce costs, regardless of what that means for aviation. They may not remember or understand the obligations that came with FAA improvement funds they received in the past.

It may be based on completely unrealistic expectations and ego. People in power convince themselves that something is possible and desirable. Even when it is obvious to others that the idea will not work, ego prevents people from backing down. At Hemet, there seemed to be two stated goals, neither of which was realistic, and only one (or neither) of which may have been the true motivation.

- The county wanted to keep CalFire operations at Hemet, and expected the state to pay for improvements to CalFire facilities, ignoring California's fiscal situation which precludes such investment. Why was this believed to be so important? Because by building new CalFire facilities in the space occupied by the gliders, they would make room for redeveloping the older section of the airport.

- The county said they wanted to attract more jet traffic to Hemet, and expand runways to accommodate it. Really? Who needs to fly jets into Hemet - or into California City? Neither is a hotbed of industrial activity, or the home of wealthy people with private jets. Was this a diversion?

At Cal City, the history of infrastructure changes that did not work out, and escalating efforts to make them work, may also have been motivated by ego.

It is about money and power. Someone has a lot to gain, or already is getting a lot and is aiming to protect it. It may be about power, but more likely it is about money. If you can figure out who stands to gain and how, you may be able to come up with a counterstrategy. This can be difficult to discern because of secrecy. 

- At Hemet, the best theory seemed to be that elected county officials would gain political contributions from construction companies seeking contracts for the proposed redevelopment. 

- At Cal City, I have no idea whether the official in charge is elected, so the financial motivation may be different. To figure this out, one needs to keep asking "Why?" until one gets to the root cause of the behavior. Follow the money.

It may involve corruption. At Hemet, we could not prove anything, and did not even really look into this aspect. But the day some glider people went to meet with county officials, they had to wait in the lobby while the FBI conducted a raid on the county offices. And a careful reading of CalFire board meeting minutes reveals a sudden reversal of their position, violating their own process, after they met with Riverside county officials. If corruption is involved, honest organizations will always be at a disadvantage, because the corrupt ones will always be more highly motivated.

It can be nearly impossible to counteract a highly motivated person who already has power. At Hemet, we eventually realized that the only way to even attempt to counter the situation would be to (1) get involved in county politics (a county where few of us reside), and (2) spend large amounts of money on the political process. We did not have the desire or means to do either.

FAA and CalTrans cannot force airports to make improvements or spend money. They can do passive things such as withholding funds, revoking or refusing to renew permits, etc. FAA cannot force an airport to produce an airport plan that is fair or realistic. At Hemet, one option would have been to make the lights on the main runway flush to the ground to make towplane operations easier. Another option would have been to reconfigure the glider runway. The county chose to do none of these, chose to avoid working on an operating plan, and chose to wait for the gliders to leave due to intolerable conditions. The only leverage we have is that FAA may withhold future funds if they find the county violated the ruling that they handed down regarding the gliders.

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