Monday, December 11, 2006
BY CHIP JONES
THE RICHMOND (VA) TIMES-DISPATCH
Victor Williams stood on the tarmac behind Richmond International Airport's terminal, warily watching a steady flow of service vehicles rush by jets getting loaded with fuel, luggage and people.
"It's a whole lot busier than when I started 25 years ago," Williams, the airport's public-safety director, said last week. "It's busier, but the amount of square feet hasn't changed."
He nodded toward the cramped area most passengers only glimpse on their way onto planes. At times, it resembles a mini-freeway, with tugs pulling baggage carts, food trucks and tractor-trailers making beer deliveries. Sometimes armored cars roll in.
"Everyone's in a hurry and wants to be on time," Williams said.
Airport officials estimate that 800 to 1,000 vehicles a day move across the staging area near the terminal serving 104 departing planes.
The potential for accidents, especially those involving fuel trucks, prompted the Capital Region Airport Commission to propose tougher safety and training rules for contractors that supply jet fuel.
The panel that oversees the airport is expected to approve the rules tomorrow, making the 14 commissioners from Henrico, Chesterfield, Hanover and Richmond the final arbiters of any disputes that arise over safety performance.
Current regulations do not include provisions to suspend fuel-truck operators in the event of airport accidents.
The vote follows months of wrangling between worried airport officials and private contractors who fear their businesses could be jeopardized by overregulation. The rules were developed after two incidents at the airport between fuel trucks and jets earlier this year.
Airport commissioners said they want to do everything they can to avoid another fuel truck-jet crash.
Any accident is bad, said Richmond Commissioner Robert F. Norfleet Jr., "but I really don't want a fuel truck running into a plane."
Commissioner John V. Mazza Jr. of Chesterfield, a longtime pilot, said the public -- which has been flocking to the revamped airport in record numbers is watching.
"If there were a number of incidents, one right after the other, yes, it could affect us," he said. "Or a single incident where a death occurred."
No one was killed or seriously injured in the February and March accidents, and there was no fuel spill or fire. But at its Nov. 28 meeting, commissioners heard stark descriptions from one veteran manager who sees the ground operations every day.
"A lot of speeding goes on," said Chrissy Miller, general manager of Delaware North Cos., the airport's food and beverage retailer. "We have some safety issues out there. Somebody has to be held accountable."
The speed limit in the aircraft boarding area is 15 mph. Drivers sometimes go twice that fast, she said.
"What if he doesn't see someone coming the other way?" Miller asked. "We have 18-wheelers all day long."
Miller, who has worked at the airport 19 years, said she agrees with the commission's safety crackdown.
Let's say a big truck comes in to pick up barrels of grease from the airport's restaurants, she said. "If this guy spills grease, it's my responsibility. If the airport commission didn't have a policy, or my company wasn't fined, I might wait a week to clean it up. I think accountability here is the issue for airport tenants."
Another worrisome trend has been the outsourcing of many airline maintenance jobs, not just here but across the country. The Flight Safety Foundation in Alexandria estimates that ground-based accidents cost airlines $4 billion a year, with an additional $1 billion in the corporate and general-aviation sector.
No cost estimates from the two local fuel-truck accidents have been released, but Jon Mathiasen, the airport's president and chief executive, said he hopes his get-tough stance will help avoid future incidents.
"If the rules are properly embraced, there's not going to be a problem," he said last month.
Williams, the airport's safety chief, said he follows a simple rule of thumb when he's driving his SUV in the ramp area.
Whenever an airplane approaches, he said, "I just stop. I'm not going to try to beat them."