FAA challenges DOT’s plan to vacate Dillingham Airfield this summer

Always Investigating

HONOLULU (KHON2) — The state’s attempt to get out early from its lease of Dillingham Airfield has raised alarm bells at the Federal Aviation Administration, Always Investigating has found.

As KHON2 was first to report, the state shocked the U.S. Army by asking to cut the state’s lease at Dillingham short and vacate as soon as this summer.

That has led to worries the U.S. Army will shut the airfield down.

All the money the state Department of Transportation takes from the federal government for airport infrastructure comes with strings the feds say the state would cut if they stop running the north shore airfield prematurely.

“I think there’s no question that under every circumstance this airfield must remain open. it’s too important to the community,” said Sen. Gil Riviere, (D) District 23, who represents the area. “It’s too important to the people that work there. It’s too important a segment of our tourism industry.”

The state told the U.S. Army in a letter received Jan. 23 that the DOT intends to vacate as soon as June 30, 2020. Now the FAA has warned the state: Not so fast. Always Investigating obtained a letter telling the state they’re obligated to keep the airport open for civilian use at least through 2025 because of FAA taxiway extension grants from 2003 and 2005.

“We made that investment expecting a minimum useful life of 20 years under the initial lease agreement that was set to expire in 2033,” the FAA wrote to the DOT on Jan. 24. “Therefore, the HDOT is obligated to ensure that those improvements and the airport is available for civilian use at least through 2025 in order to comply with its federal obligations.”

“They’re going to have to pay that back if they want to close that airport,” said pilot Adam Townley-Wren who has been a DOT general aviation tenant or affiliated with other tenants in conflict with the state. “It’s going to be a big fight, and it’s going to cost all of us a lot of money if they start shutting down all these satellite airports, they risk the funding for this one (HNL) even it’s a big deal and I’m glad the FAA is finally onboard.”

The FAA’s other warning in writing: that the DOT is required to assure what they call “economic nondiscrimination” which requires HDOT to “make the airport [or in this case its airport system] available…for public use…without unjust discrimination to all types, kinds, and classes of aeronautical activity.”

“I think it’s great that they’re finally putting that in writing,” Townley-Wren said. “There, here at Honolulu, at Kalaeloa, all over the state of Hawaii, general aviation has been under attack.”

Many sources tell me the DOT Airports division management has openly expressed frustration with general aviation tenants, many of them the DOT considers hard to manage and keep in compliance. Advocates for aviation say they still must serve that category of user.

“The DOT Airports division handles general aviation,” Riviere said. “They are the agency that’s supposed to manage this, and they’ve got to stay involved, and they’ve got to allow some sort of transition plan if not continuing of the airport.”

“They’re charged with maintaining aviation and encouraging aviation,” Townley-Wren said, “and instead they are just steamrolling it underground and willfully and deliberately putting people out of business.”

The state’s current Dillingham lease expires in 2024. Their leases with the Army used to be for decades at a time until federal rules changed to just 5-year cycles.

The Army tells us that as soon as the state re-upped their lease last fall, good-faith talks were already underway to negotiate the terms of a longer lease at the state’s request, which would take Washington-level approval for an exception to the 5-year max, an exception the Army in Hawaii was willing to go to bat for.

“The stated purpose of the 2019 extension was to allow time to negotiate the terms of a longer term lease as requested by the State, including obtaining Secretary of Army approval as required by law for any lease exceeding five years,” the Army told KHON2 in a statement. “The U.S. Army has been working with the state on such a lease for the past year.”

The DOT has not answered KHON2’s repeated questions about why they now suddenly want out. But in a press release the DOT posted to its website just Thursday evening, they list the 5-year terms, review of improvements and water-system responsibility as some contributing factors.

“In addition, HDOTA subsidizes $1 million dollars a year for the operation and maintenance at the airfield and we will focus the resources on the remaining 14 airports in our jurisdiction,” DOT Director Jade Butay said in the press release.

Many think last summer’s fatal skydive crash at Dillingham is among the reasons.

“I think the state is probably worried about their legal liability and they just want out of it,” said Steve Lowry, owner of Acroflight International, and operator of the Aviation Explorers Post 2013 youth learning program.

“That is no reason to shut down an airfield,” Riviere said. “Accidents do happen, and as tragic as they are that cannot be a valid justification for this decision.”

Always Investigating will continue to press the DOT for responses about the obligations the FAA says the state still holds.

DOT Deputy Director Ross Higashi said in the Thursday press release that “To continue the agreement at HDH could put HDOTA at risk for loss of additional financial resources and grants in the airports system from the FAA,” but the release offered no explanation of why DOT believes grants are at risk by staying, whereas the FAA says they are at risk by leaving, other than to say “this inability to establish long-term leases (leases longer than (20)-years) directly affects the HDOTA’s eligibility as an airport sponsor, to apply/receive any Airport Improvement Program (AIP) grants.”

The U.S. Army has asked for a meeting with the state that could happen as soon as this week. They tell KHON2 a state-agency tenant is the only model they have to keep things going as is. The Army does not lease places Dillingham to for-profit or nonprofit groups anywhere else.

“The Army is not in a position to handle commercial activity for the public,” Riviere said.

Among the public affected would be everyone from the hikers who access Kealia trail through the property, to the dozens of commercial and recreational tenants that have no idea what their immediate future holds.

“And then there’s the obvious, the hundreds of people who will be out of work,” said says pilot John Sequeira. “Not just the people that fly here, you’ve got Securitas, you’ve got the tower people, maintenance people, it’s a domino.”

“I would say to the residents of the north shore who might be salivating a little bit that maybe they’re going to have a little less tourist traffic and a little less airplane noise, imagine if this big faceless organization was coming after your job and your livelihood and your business and they were going to shut you down with impunity, and there’s nothing you could do,” Townley-Wren said. “This has to be fought. It cannot stand.”


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