Commentary January 10, 2005

The following article is based on comments sent to Minneapolis Star-Tribune reporters and editors following the newspaper's Special Report published 10 January 2005. See:

  • Page 1A THE HUB: A COSTLY BLESSING
  • Page 1A Northwest‚s local dominance carries benefits, but (local business) travelers pay for them with higher fares, studies show. By Mike Meyers.
  • Page 1A (cont‚d 9A) Expansion proposal puts added pressure on MAC members. By Dan Wascoe.
  • Page 9A Airfare studies wrong, Northwest says. By Mike Meyers.

Who Speaks for the Public At the Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC)?

"The Metropolitan Airports Commission, certainly Chair Tigwell, apparently has political direction from Governor Pawlenty to favor Northwest Airlines in the MSP capital improvements program, including delaying and cutting noise abatement and environmental compliance projects." This line was part of a South Metro Airport Action Council (SMAAC) News Letter article in Fall 2004. The same idea was the subject of an unpublished Commentary submitted to the Star-Tribune September 23, 2004, the day after the report of the Governor‚s announced support for Northwest‚s plan to solidify their dominant position at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport and his intent to "lobby" (MAC) for it.

Over a year later, we see that "lobby" understated Governor Tim Pawlenty‚s involvement as an advocate for Northwest Airlines. Although the Star-Tribune has at last come back to report the issue, many steps leading to this situation were unreported.

At the Commission, as former member Coral Houle was quoted, the voice of affected communities is not being heard and listened to. SMAAC knows of what she speaks: the public is not allowed to speak to the Noise Oversight Committee (NOC) unless invited with both the airline and city Co-Chairs agreeing. The one time SMAAC was invited to speak, Northwest‚s representative and Commission lobbyist, Co-Chair Kathleen Nelson, ruled our comments out-of-order and expunged not only the remark but also an ensuing debate among NOC members from the official minutes.

Many times, MAC staff and Commissioners "negotiate" with Northwest or other MSP tenants about projects, violations, contracts, or problems. The results are seldom made public beyond a line or two in large documents underlying Commission agenda. Even negotiations with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency over the 40,000+ gallon fuel leak were confidential.

The Commissioners are appointed to represent geopolitical populations, citizens, businesses, and local units of government, but they seldom consult with citizens or citizen advocacy groups. The Commission holds hearings, but calls no witnesses, seldom, if ever, questions staff or airline testimony, and allows no dissent. [Note: An exception was the de-watering flap, when the Minnehaha Creek Watershed District engineers disputed MAC‚s computation of the effects of airport projects on water levels. The exception more or less proves the rule: outside experts almost always differ with MAC, and this may be because they are, in fact, unbiased.] Even if witnesses are advocates, the Commission is bound ethically and legally to sort out and act on the facts, the evidence (testimony) before the body. No wonder Ms. Houle was upset.

What was again revealed is the Commission has become so politicized that no open dissent or even factual questioning is allowed from the public ˆ even to the extent that written comments submitted to a public hearing required by Minnesota law ˆ were "misplaced." SMAAC was summarily cut-off by Chair Tigwell when inquiring about this matter and the fuel leaks. Chair Tigwell abruptly adjourned the December 20 Commission meeting by directing SMAAC to submit further concerns "to us" in writing.

The correspondence was sent December 21, but it so far has not left the desk of the staff assigned to "answer" it, and if past practice, as reported by Dan Wascoe, persists, the false Hearing Officer‚s Report will be old news to the new and more compliant Commissioners being appointed to quickly expand Northwest‚s hub.

The report points out the expected noise and pollution increases, the high fares, the banishing of local travelers and not-partnered-with-Northwest airlines to the Humphrey Terminal (away from the connecting market), and the additional "loan" of $92 million in public money to an airline nearing bankruptcy, we think because of major hub costs and inefficiencies.

How about safety? MSP already supports 50% more operations at peak hours than in 1996. MSP already supports more passengers per year than the local need projected for 2020. Hub expansion means more airliners flying closer together and taxiing faster; more fuel trucks, snow plows, and baggage trains cris-crossing the runways and taxiways; and more air traffic control issues. As Senator Dayton asked the Federal Aviation Agency (FAA) in 2003: Is an expanded hub at MSP safe and feasible? Yes, Commissioner Rehcamp, a devilish detail in the decade of many air traffic controller retirements and Federal budgets being cut to support a war and avoid huge deficits. Congress will not even consider the 2007-08 fiscal year appropriations bill for FAA until 2006.

The Airports Commission is evolving into an ethical cesspool. If you enjoy airport noise, aren‚t troubled by air and water pollution, if you like high business airfares, or you think tax money and government bonds should be used to help keep things that way, you will be welcomed to address public hearings held by MAC. If you think more transparency, at least, and fairness should be expected of Commissioners because of their oath of office: call the Governor or call the Commissioner "representing" you. Tell them to invite outside experts; hire independent consultants; do all their debate and deliberation during open meetings; obey all the laws, rules, regulations, and local ordinances; and be responsible office-holders and reasonable ladies and gentlemen.

As for SMAAC, we will plug away, and assume the integrity of every Commissioner and the sincerity of every apology we receive until proven wrong. The reports piling up are approaching the irrefutable proof level though, and re-appointment is an inference.

Commissioner McGee told us she was appointed because of her knowledge and judgement; Mr. Wascoe points out that Commissioner Houle was not re-appointed because of her knowledge and judgement.

New Commissioners will be sworn in, and will, we assume, take the oath of office without reservation. They will find, if they look for it, evidence about safety, environment compliance, noise abatement, finance, and other issues; doubts will be raised that decisions already made or to be made are consistent with their oath of office. Or not.


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