FAA proposes $1.56 million fine for Anniston airport over safety issues

Tim Lockette, The Anniston Star, Ala.
·3 min read

Apr. 12—The Federal Aviation Administration on Friday proposed a $1.56 million fine against Anniston's city government in response to alleged safety violations at Anniston Regional Airport.

City Manager Steven Folks said the city has hired an aviation lawyer and plans to argue against the fine.

"There's still a conversation going on," Folks said.

Anniston owns the airport, which isn't in the city and in fact is south of Oxford. In the late 20th century, when Anniston still had the Army training base Fort McClellan, the airfield saw some regular passenger traffic. Today, it's largely used by private pilots and occasionally the military. Football season and races at Talladega Superspeedway have brought charter flights to the airport in recent years.

The airport's daily operations are run by a private company, Anniston Aviation, which is under contract to provide services such as fuel and maintenance. But upkeep of the facilities falls to the city's public works department, which historically has dedicated only a handful of employees to the airport.

FAA inspectors visited the airport in March 2020 and found what they described as "potentially hazardous ruts", cracked and loose pavement and drainage problems on the runway. Lighting and signage were "not maintained," according to an inspection report.

The city's airport staff had not kept up with training on how to drive on the flightline, how to inspect fuel operations, and how to create a "wildlife management plan," inspectors concluded. Collisions with birds and land animals pose a hazard to planes on takeoff and landing, and airports often take measures to keep wildlife away from an airfield.

In a press release on Friday — one year and one day from the release of the FAA's 2020 report — officials of the aviation agency say the city "failed to correct many of the violations after the FAA alerted it to them."

The proposed fine seemed to surprise some city officials, who say they've been working to correct the identified problems and have been keeping the aviation agency informed of their progress.

The city last year sought a $3.7 million grant to resurface the runway, a project that would likely fix many of the problems identified in the report. Work on that project, originally slated for fall 2020, has yet to start.

"We didn't get everything finalized until early winter," Anniston public works director David Arnett said. "And we decided to wait until summer so we could have a good stretch of good weather."

Work on the project is expected to begin in June and could close the airport to air traffic for 90 days, he said.

Arnett said the FAA hasn't sent out inspectors to view sites in person during the pandemic. He said the agency knows about the progress of remedies at the airport only through reports provided by the city. He said the city has since added one additional full-time staffer to its airport crew.

There have been no injuries and only one event that caused damage to an aircraft at the airport in recent months, Arnett said, and that incident wasn't due to structural problems with the runway.

"We had one flat tire in the past three months and that was due to a hard landing," he said.

Members of the Anniston City Council have been talking for months about a plan to create a separate airport authority, run by a board of appointees from local governments, to run the airport independently. That setup is typical for small-town airports. Mayor Jack Draper and others on the council have said the city needs buy-in from other local governments because the airport serves the entire region.

According to the FAA press release, the city has requested a meeting with the FAA to discuss the proposed fine.

Arnett said the city has 30 days to contest the proposal.

Attempts to reach the FAA for further comment were not immediately successful Monday morning.

This story will be updated as more information becomes available.

Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.