How carefully did you read your hangar lease before you signed it?
Does it stipulate what can and cannot be stored in the hangar? Does it allow the airport owner and the FAA to inspect your hangar at any time, no notice necessary?
Officials at Vernal Regional Airport (VEL) in Vernal, Utah, claim that is what lease agreements at the airport say, yet when the FAA wanted to do a walk-through inspection of the facilities on July 6, some of the tenants refused.
“The purpose of the walk through was to make sure that the tenants are abiding by their lease agreements — that is, using their hangars for the storage of aircraft and aviation-related equipment only,” says Philip Oviatt, airport manager.
It is important that tenants abide by the rules of their leases, according to Oviatt, because the airport must comply with compatible land use requirements to continue receiving FAA funding.
“If we violate the standards, we can lose our eligibility for funding, and this airport is 95% to 98% supported by FAA grants,” he says.
The airport, located in the northeast corner of the state, sits on approximately 254 acres. It has two runways, 16/34, which measures 6,201 feet, and 7/25, which measures 4,108 feet. The airport is co-owned by Uintah County and the City of Vernal.
“The airport is having some growing pains,” explains Uintah Deputy County Attorney Ed Peterson. “There are people who are unhappy that they can’t store their hay baler in the hangar anymore.”
HOW IT BEGAN
Oviatt, who has been airport manager for about a year, says that on the day of the FAA inspection Dinaland Aviation, one of the FBOs at the airport, allegedly denied admission to the hangars to representatives of the FAA and the airport owners.
“They said that the FAA had no right to be in the hangars and that upset the FAA and enraged the City Council, because the lease states that the city and county have unrestricted access to the hangars,” he says.
“No notice is necessary to inspect them,” adds Peterson. “It says this in the leases.”
But John Gardiner, owner of Dinaland Aviation, has a different version of events. When tenants got wind that the airport manager wanted to inspect the hangars with a representative from the FAA’s Office of Grants and Assurances, Gardiner said he called the FAA to get the details. He spoke to an official who, he says, told him the FAA normally doesn’t inspect hangars. “But if they do, we would get 48 hours notice,” he said. “So on July 6, around 4:30 in the afternoon, the airport manager shows up with a lady from the FAA to inspect the hangars. I tell them that I have talked to her boss and that we were told there would be 48 hours notice, so they would need to make an appointment. I didn’t deny them access, I told them to make an appointment. That made the airport manager angry and they left.”
Donnie Knop, an employee of Dinaland Aviation, says he was in the office a week later when the airport manager returned with law enforcement officials.
“A couple of sheriff cars pull up and out come deputies with dogs and guns,” he recalls. “They told us it was a security check of the hangars. I said I could not give consent for the search and they said ‘we’re not asking for consent, we’re doing it.’ The county attorney was with them and I asked him why they were doing this and he replied ‘because we can.'”
“There were six cops and two attack dogs,” adds John Phillips, a hangar tenant at the airport since 1991, who happened to be in the FBO when the sheriff arrived. “It was unnecessary. The people who have these hangars are retired school principals, not Mafia.”
Both Peterson and Oviatt agree that the presence of law enforcement and the dogs may have been intimidating, but say the number of law enforcement personnel was accidental.
“You have to understand that Vernal is still pretty much a small town,” Oviatt says. “When other deputies heard over the radio a call for deputies and a dog at the airport they wondered what was going on and wanted to be part of the action, so a bunch of extra people showed up, then went away.”
Law enforcement was there to keep the peace, according to Peterson, because the airport manager has been threatened before. “And the dogs were not attack dogs, they were working dogs, like you see at any airport,” he says. “They search for drugs.”
According to Mike Fergus, an FAA spokesman, it is his understanding that one of the tenants tried to intimidate the FAA inspector during the July 6 inspection attempt, “so the inspector quit and then went to the airport manager, who got law enforcement.”
Gardiner, who notes that only unlocked hangars and the FBO office were searched, has filed a Notice of Claim against the airport owners, citing violation of the Fourth Amendment. He says he asked for $850,000, while Knop asked for $180,000.
“They have 60 days to respond by either paying the amount or negotiating it to a lower figure,” he says. “If they don’t respond, it turns into a full-blown lawsuit.”
The county did receive the notice, according to Peterson, who adds, “we have no idea if they intend to proceed with the lawsuit.”
Meanwhile, the county is sending letters to hangar tenants who were out of compliance, notifying them that, unless they removed non-aviation items from their hangars, their leases could be revoked.
“Some people were not very happy but we have the attitude that, ‘hey, we have to work through this,'” Peterson continues. “To the best of my knowledge, the matter has been resolved.”
Gardiner admits that he was not sure if the leases the tenants signed forbade them from having non-aviation items in their hangars.
“There are some people who have items like small boats and snowmobiles and the like in their hangars, as well as their airplanes,” he says. “It is my understanding that, as far as the FAA is concerned, as long as there is an airplane in the hangar and the other items do not impede the ability to get the airplane in and out of the hangar, then it is okay.”
Contrary to what an FAA official told Gardiner, it is not uncommon for FAA officials to inspect hangars randomly at airports that have accepted or are applying for federal grants, according to the FAA’s Fergus.
“What we are looking for is to make sure that the hangars are being used for airplanes and not to store couches or automobiles,” he says. “They are intended for storage of airplanes and that is it. If we find something that is not supposed to be in there we write a letter to the airport manager and tell them to bring the tenants into compliance.”
If there is an infraction, the only means of enforcement the FAA has is to withhold funds.
“That is a pretty drnian measure,” says Fergus.
The real problem at the airport, according to Oviatt, is the attitude of hangar tenants who feel that general aviation should come first.
“They say ‘you should be catering to us’, but the FAA doesn’t fund GA, although it is 90% of airport operations,” he says. “The FAA funds the 10% that is commercial traffic. It is the commercial traffic that generates the money for us. The airport is growing up and we are facing a major expansion of our runway from 6,200 to 7,200 feet to accommodate more air traffic in response to an oil and gas boom going on in our area. We are becoming a bigger and more sophisticated airport.
“For a long time tenants have been able to have extra stuff in the hangars, but in order for us to move forward with the expansion and for us to be on the higher priority list of the FAA for the grants we need, the GA population has to come to terms with what can and can’t be on airport property,” he continues. “If we are out of compliance, the FAA could technically take our funding and make us repay millions of dollars, or put us on a lower priority list for funding our expansion projects.”
But Jared Spencer, president of the Vernal Airport Association, says the real problem at the airport is the airport manager.
“He is very overbearing and has no communication skills,” he says.
Pilots also don’t like the fact that Oviatt is not a pilot.
Oviatt, who spent 10 years at Delta Airlines as a flight attendant, also has 10 years experience in human resources for the City of Las Vegas. He holds a Masters Degree in Corporate Relations and a Bachelors Degree in Public Relations.
“You don’t need to be a pilot to manage an airport, but you do need experience in the public sector,” Oviatt says. “You need to know about dealing with government.”
Spencer counters that when airport users complained to the city and county about problems at the airport, they were told to talk to the airport manager.
“And that is where the communication stopped,” he continues, “so we formed the airport association last Spring. The airport sponsors are now listening — somewhat. They know we are serious and not going to roll over and let the airport manager bully his way over the top of us.”