Turbulent relationship: Local aviators allege mismanagement at Laramie Regional Airport

LARAMIE — Pilots and users of the Laramie Regional Airport have again called the experience and ability of the facility’s management team’s into question. 

A group of seven people with ties to the airport authored an open letter outlining concerns about the management and governing board and spoke during the board’s regular meeting last week. 

“The management of Laramie Regional Airport has failed this community and its users,” the letter reads. “At the most basic level, an airport manager is responsible for the operations, safety and maintenance of the airport. What we have seen is an intense focus on revenue at the cost of all other duties.” 

The letter, which was sent to state and local governments and the Federal Aviation Administration on Easter Sunday, outlines a slate of grievances with the airport, ranging from unexpected fee increases to lack of experience and an alleged failure to follow FAA regulations. 

“There’s been some instances where I think power struggles have prevailed over doing the right thing,” said Evan Egenolf, an aircraft and hangar owner who signed onto the letter. 

During the meeting, multiple airport users pointed to a tense environment and lack of collaboration from airport management as the root of their concerns. 

The complaints came toward the end of a week of commercial flights cancellations at the airport following the failure of a crucial piece of weather reporting equipment known as the automated surface observation system.

The letter originally claimed the cancellations were caused by mismanagement of the airport, but the group later rescinded the claim after learning more about the situation.

The FAA restricts the landing of commercial planes without the equipment, which helps pilots understand weather conditions. 

Airport staff are not allowed to repair the equipment themselves, and the local airport was 15th on the waiting list for repair work, said Airport Director Amy Terrell. While there is an option to hire a human weather observer who can stand in during equipment failures, there are significant barriers to getting the approvals necessary for the position, she said. 

The group of airport users stood by their other concerns, which include an increase in hangar rental and fuel prices, new $25 fees to use the water spigot and heater on-site and problems with hangars and snow removal. 

“They want money, and I get it. The airport had issues and it needed more money,” said Thomas Bienz, a pilot and orthopedic surgeon at Premier Bone & Joint Centers. “But the way they’re going about it doesn’t include the users … and in many cases actually violates FAA regulations.” 

The Laramie Regional Airport relies on state and federal money to operate. It must complete a safety audit and follow a set of regulations known as “grant assurances” to keep its federal appropriations. 

Under the previous airport board, accounting and audits hadn’t been conducted for years on end, said current board chair Malea Brown. Past board members were asked to resign because of a host of FAA compliance issues in what current board member Robert Southard called a “fiscal and regulatory emergency.” 

The new airport board was formed in June 2021 and has worked with Terrell, the new manager, to succeed in getting the airport fully compliant with FAA safety regulations, Brown said. 

The airport needs a budget of about $2 million to operate, and about $500,000 has gone toward fixing record keeping issues from the past administration, Brown said during a city council meeting. 

She also mentioned that the majority of rentals at the airport are land leases, which the airport increased from $0.20 per square foot to $0.25 per square foot. 

Bienz and a handful of other aviators also raised concerns over what they called “discrimination” in pricing in charging landing fees for certain airport users and not others. 

There also were concerns about rules such as prohibiting pilots from fueling their own aircraft and other rules. 

“It almost seems like the interest of the board is to basically make rules for the sake of making rules and make it difficult to use the airport, which I don’t understand what the advantage would be,” Bienz said. 

A representative from the FAA told the Boomerang it was unable to clarify questions about federal regulations, even in a hypothetical nature, unless a complaint has been filed with the agency. 

“With respect to allegations concerning federal compliance at the Laramie Regional Airport, we respectfully disagree,” Terrell said in a written statement. “Airport management and staff are proud to provide a safe and federally compliant airport for the general and commercial aviation community.” 

Brown said the airport board is working with FAA officials to have an educational meeting with airport users who are unclear on the compliances. 

Those affiliated with the airport board expressed surprise at the contents of the letter. 

“I hope people understand there were some changes that had to be made, and if they did not understand or had concerns they could have taken them to (Terrell) or to the board,” said Pete Gosar, the Albany County Commission liaison to the airport board. “That’s how you do it in a small town.” 

Bienz said he had various meetings with Terrell, but that sometimes when he reached out to Terrell and the airport board citing concerns with specific rules and regulations, the response was akin to “radio silence.” 

“They’re not willing to take education; they’re not willing to even consider the options,” Bienz said. “We decided to write a letter because we want to get other people, and mainly the FAA, involved.” 

While Brown didn’t mention Bienz specifically, she said some of the issues brought up in the letter were news to her. 

“It’s not a lack of communication; it’s an issue of getting together,” Terrell said during the board meeting, explaining that she offered to attend a meeting with some of the complainants from the Laramie Flying Club but was uninvited. 

“Some of what’s in this letter didn’t give the courtesy of a conversation first,” she said.

During the board meeting, a human resources representative claimed the group of letter writers, who are all male, coordinated an “attack” on Terrell not because of her management style, but because of her gender.

Egenolf and Bienz explained that they complained about Terrell and not the previous manager only because the prior issues with bookkeeping and FAA compliance weren’t well-known or understood by the public. 

“I could call the old management, they’d pull your plane out, they’d fuel it up exactly how you wanted and you’d be on your merry way,” Egenolf said. “Operationally, they did a very good job.”