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FAA: Brainerd airport is safe

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Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport is safe and following federal rules, the Federal Aviation Administration has disclosed, it was learned Wednesday.

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In a letter dated May 11 and sent to Brainerd City Council member Bob Olson, Paula Lewis, FAA assistant administrator for regions and center operations, responded to several concerns Olson had about airport safety based on an anonymous letter Olson said he received April 20. Olson had forwarded the letter to the FAA, state and federal lawmakers. 

The anonymous letter writer, who identified himself or herself as a concerned corporate commercial pilot, listed what was called poor radar coverage and lack of an air traffic control tower as the main safety concerns at the Brainerd airport. The anonymous letter writer also connected those issues with a recent conflict of interest issue at the airport. 

In her response, Lewis wrote that radar coverage employed over Brainerd is routinely used in areas where air traffic activity levels are lower than levels seen in and around more populated areas. 

“This approach to radar coverage and air traffic control, along with well-established rules governing safe flight operations by pilots and aircraft, has proven to be sufficient in ensuring a high degree of safety throughout our nation’s aviation system.”

Lewis noted that the state of Minnesota has discussed radar coverage over the western part of the state, including Brainerd, with the FAA on several occasions in recent years and the state is pursuing options for better coverage in the area. 

Regarding an air traffic control tower at the Brainerd airport, Lewis wrote that annual traffic at the airport is below the FAA’s threshold for establishing that type of service. 

“This is a common scenario,” Lewis wrote. “In fact, a like situation exists at other airports in Minnesota, including Falls International Airport, Range Regional Airport (formerly known as Chisholm-Hibbing Airport) and Bemidji Regional Airport.”

Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport, Lewis wrote, holds the proper operating certificate, is inspected annually and continues to meet all requirements of the operating certificate. The airport, she noted, has also implemented several safety initiatives related to its certification, including an active wildlife management program and an airfield that meets all current FAA airport design standards. 

On the conflict of interest issue involving former airport commission member Doug Kuepers, Lewis wrote that FAA records show Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport has complied with FAA rules for architectural, engineering and planning consultant services for airport grant projects in its selection of consultant services for the terminal project.

Airport Manager Steve Sievek said Wednesday that Lewis’ letter confirmed what he said when Olson sent out the anonymous letter — that the airport was safe. 

“The letter speaks for itself,” Sievek said. “I’m disappointed it has not been made public sooner.”

Sievek said he learned the FAA had sent a response to Olson and the letter was dated May 11. Sievek said he waited to see if Olson would then make the FAA response public as the letter itself was public. 

“It was front page when the anonymous letter came in, this should be front page, too,” Sievek said Wednesday in releasing the letter. 

Olson, however, said he was never sent the letter from the FAA. The first he had heard there was an answer to his questions was when he was called for comment Wednesday, and the first he’d read it was at the Dispatch’s office. 

“If I would have gotten it, I would have shared it with the council and shared it with the public,” Olson said. He said he would contact the FAA to find out why the letter, which was addressed to him, was not sent to him.

“I’m surprised I didn’t get the letter. I’m telling you, and I’m looking you right in the eye, I didn’t get this letter,” Olson said. 

The end result, Olson said, was that it was good news to hear safety requirements at Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport meet FAA requirements. 

“I’m satisfied reading this letter and the citizens, I’m sure, will be satisfied the safety meets FAA requirements,” Olson said. 

Olson said he didn’t regret sending the anonymous letter to the FAA, state and federal lawmakers and wouldn’t hesitate to do it again. He said he would rather be safe than sorry, and now the city has its answer. 

Olson didn’t address the anonymous letter with Sievek because he said he didn’t have faith or confidence in Sievek. He instead copied the anonymous letter and the letter he sent to the FAA, state and federal lawmakers to the Brainerd City Council. 

“That was the proper governing body to show it to,” Olson said. 

When asked how much faith could be put into an anonymous letter, Olson noted that the Dispatch also reported on portions of an anonymous letter it had received in the story covering Olson’s anonymous letter. 

“It’s the same thing,” Olson said. “You asked why I would forward this letter? I ask you, why put information from an anonymous letter in your paper? Probably for the same reason that I did, I felt it was better to explore it.”

Olson said he doesn’t know who sent him the anonymous letter. He also said he wasn’t concerned that making the anonymous letter public and sending it to lawmakers would hurt the reputation of the airport. 

“No, I was more concerned to find out how the safety issue was at the airport,” Olson said. 

Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport, which is jointly owned by Brainerd and Crow Wing County, has been embroiled in controversy since April 4, when it was brought to the council’s attention that Kuepers was serving as an airport commissioner while his company, Kuepers Inc., architects and builders, had been hired as on-site manager on the terminal remodel project. 

In his opinion to the city council May 16, City Attorney Tom Fitzpatrick said there was a conflict in place but state statute allowed an exception as long as Kuepers filed an affidavit with the commission and the commission unanimously authorizes the contract, both of which happened Tuesday. However, Kuepers also resigned from the commission Tuesday.

Lost in the mix of the last many weeks of controversy is the $6.4 million building project for the terminal building remodel, which is the largest public project in Crow Wing County, Sievek said.

“I think that’s a shame,” Sievek said. 

MATT ERICKSON may be reached at matt.erickson@brainerddispatch.com or 855-5857.

RENEE RICHARDSON may be reached at renee.richardson@brainerddispatch.com or 855-5852.

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Sarah Nelson
Sarah Nelson joined the Brainerd Dispatch in April 2010 and works as a online reporter, content editor and staff writer. She is a world traveler, accused idealist and California native now braving the winters of Central Minnesota. She believes in the power of human resolve and hopes to be part of something that makes history by bringing an end to injustice in the world. Sarah has worked as a criminal background researcher, high school civics teacher, grant writer, and contributing writer with Causecast.org — tackling every issue from global poverty to bio-degradable bicycles. Her favorite thing about living in Minnesota is July. Sarah left the Brainerd Dispatch in April 2014.
(218) 855-5879
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