The Federal Aviation Administration San Francisco Airports District Office has informed the City of Oakdale it has received complaints that the Laughlin Road airport may be violating portions of its grants assurances sections as it applies to the condition and operation of the facility.
In a letter obtained by The Leader, FAA Airport Compliance Specialist Robert Lee informed Oakdale City Manager Bryan Whitemyer on April 14 that it had received a complaint from “Mr. William L. Bradford Jr.” about four violations of three separate grant assurance sections regarding economic nondiscrimination, operations and maintenance, and fee and rental structure.
Bradford, a veteran pilot, has been a vocal critic of the airport and its operation over the years.
When airports accept funds from FAA-administered financial assistance programs, they must agree to certain obligations or assurances. These obligations require the recipients to maintain and operate their facilities safely and in accordance with FAA specified conditions.
Since 2000, the City of Oakdale has accepted over $2.8 million in federal grant funding under the FAA’s Airport Improvement Program.
A portion of the informal complaint questions that the city is allowing Sierra West Airlines the use of airport facilities for non-aeronautical purposes such as parking and business operations that do not relate to the airport.
“Non-aeronautical use of the airport designated land must be reviewed and approved by the FAA,” the letter states. “The alleged actions by the Airport…do not meet FAA’s policy of operating a federally obligated airport for the benefit of civil aviation.”
The complaint also conveyed that the airport is poorly maintained and includes worn out gates, major tarmac damage and poor patching of the asphalt, and the existence of unpaved areas. The FAA cautions the city that if the issues exist and have not been corrected, the city would be in non-compliance of the grant assurances.
The final concern regards “Economic Nondiscrimination” that contends the airport may not be meeting the requirement to make the airport as self-sustaining as possible where airport revenue must be used only for the operation and maintenance of the airport.
Lee instructed the city to provide a response to the allegations within 15 days.
In a response letter dated May 5 to the FAA from the city that The Leader obtained under the Public Information Act, Whitemyer stated that he did not believe the city had violated any of the grant assurances.
Whitemyer wrote that Sierra West has been a paying tenant of the airport for more than 30 years and leases three hangars at the facility. A 7,500 sq. ft. hangar is used for “aviation maintenance operations” and an 8,500 sq. ft. hangar is used for “maintaining contact and tracking their airplanes throughout the country.”
In the letter, Whitemyer admitted that the third hangar Sierra West rents is used “just for storage” but wrote the rent received from Sierra West until another tenant wants that hangar “keeps the Airport self-sustaining especially during this time of diminished aircraft operations.”
Whitemyer also stated that the city has been interested in obtaining a fixed base operator and has been formulating a plan for proposals.
Whitemyer pointed out the city’s Air Capital Improvement Plan that outlines some of the concerns brought up about the state of the airport and its care. He also stated the airport has a “regular schedule” for sweeping the runway and taxiways.
A review of the obtained April 28 (dated after the complaint was received by the city) contract the city has with KCI Sweeping showed that the runways were set to only be swept four times a year.
Bradford And FAA Remarks
When contacted for this article, Bradford declined to comment stating he was waiting for the city’s corrections and the FAA’s final finding.
Bradford has complained previously at city council meetings about the city’s “gross negligence” in managing the airport with undervalued rents and FAA rule violations, calling for the city to generate a separate bank account for all airport costs and revenues, estimating that the airport takes in over $20,000 in hangar rents but does not put that back into that facility.
Bradford also addressed the council last year inquiring why proposed hangar rates were so diverse and discriminating because a proposed fee rate favored some and disfavored others.
Lee of the FAA said the Oakdale Airport complaint investigation is still in process.
“Violations were there,” said Lee, on Thursday, July 24. “It appears they are making some progress.”
Lee said he couldn’t provide additional comments and would have a finished report back to the city by mid-August.
Not Totally Aeronautical
Over the years several people, in addition to Bradford, have questioned Sierra West’s operation.
Sierra West Airlines, owned and operated by the Robinson family, is an on-demand air charter company and is headquartered in Oakdale but its entire fleet is based in El Paso where the airline also operates a 12,000 square foot maintenance facility. The El Paso site also conducts its line level airframe and engine checks, and engine changes.
No taxable services are rendered at Oakdale.
The company claims it uses the Oakdale offices to monitor its aircraft while in-flight and does repairs at the 7,500 sq. ft. hangar. Operations Manager Justin Barnes has stated that Sierra West also conducts training for its own pilots and is responsible for all the administrative duties for the company in the area.
A review of airport activity has shown no flights for Sierra West into the airport as well as no aircraft housed at its location.
In March 2013, the Oakdale City Council voted to raise rents for all the airport hangars, but city officials later cut a closed-door deal with Sierra West allowing the business to pay only $1350 per hangar rent for each of the two facilities that would have been billed at $2,000 each or $4,000 total.
A recent check of one hangar showed no aircraft in the facility, but scattered with home/rental furnishings such as furniture, and other items believed to be stored for one of its corporate officer’s property management business.
O27 Properties Operated Out Of Sierra West?
A check with the California Bureau of Real Estate shows Kyra Robinson-Busam, who’s also listed as a vice-president for Sierra West Airlines, has a real estate license issued using the 8191 Laughlin Road address of Sierra West. The email contact for Robinson-Busam shows a Sierra West Airlines email address in other real estate related searches.
Additionally, local real estate ads have been placed with The Leader for “O27 Properties” listing Sierra West’s telephone number as the contact for agent “Kyra” or “Irina”.
‘O27’ is the FAA designator number for the Oakdale Airport.
A business license check with the City of Oakdale and Stanislaus County did not show any license issued to an ‘O27 Properties.’
A call to the number on the property ads on Monday, July 28 was answered by “Sierra West Operations.” When asking for O27 Properties, The Leader was connected with Irina Bondarenko, who is also listed as an HR and an accounting representative for Sierra West.
Bondarenko said O27 Properties was a “private operation” dealing with property rentals and commercial leases in the area.
Calls to Robinson-Busam for comment were not returned.
When contacted about the real estate operations, Whitemyer said he was aware of the family’s property management business because of the storage on site, but was not aware of any of the real estate information about Robinson-Busam or O27 Properties.
“Whatever’s happening at the airport is what I’ve inherited,” said Whitemyer, who became city manager in February 2013. “Those are good questions and we want to comply with all the FAA assurances.”
Whitemyer said the city has hired a consultant, Carol Ford, to guide the city in its assurance compliance.
“We’re going through the issues and weeding through them,” Whitemyer said. “A lot of this has been out of our control and we’re trying to get ourselves in compliance.”