Special Reports

Departing airport troubleshooter had plenty to do

At Blue Grass Airport, airlines were complaining about the baggage system, construction schedules needed to be moved up and money needed to be saved.

But under former executive director Michael A. Gobb and his lieutenants, those issues apparently weren't being addressed.

In an interview Wednesday, Alfred Testa Jr., the airport's acting director since January, said he has been "straining to keep up" as he has corrected past omissions.

Testa will leave his temporary post on Friday, but will be back from time to time to help out. He was hired by a consulting firm during an ongoing spending scandal that so far has led to the resignations of four of the airport's top officials, an audit by the state auditor's office and a criminal investigation.

Eric Frankl assumed duties as interim executive director on Monday.

Testa won't say publicly whether he thinks members of the old regime at the airport were doing their jobs.

"All I know is it needed to be done," he said about the airport projects he's been working on. He did say that safety and security were not compromised.

"Obviously, with the turmoil going on, some stuff that should have been done routinely probably was put off," he said.

"The baggage system definitely should have been done," he said. The system, known as in-line screening, was the topic of presentations by Gobb at professional meetings throughout the world. The system is now several years old and has sometimes jammed, Testa said.

"The airlines have been complaining for a couple of years, but the recently departed people had deaf ears," he said.

As far as the operation of the airport goes, Testa said he thinks things were hidden from the board that oversees the facility.

"There were four people that just created an atmosphere where there was subterfuge, at the best," he said. "That is my gut feeling."

In addition to Gobb, who could not be reached for comment, those "recently departed people" include airport director of operations John Coon, director of administration and finance John Rhodes and director of planning and development John Slone. The four resigned in January amid questions about their spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in airport money for travel and other expenses.

Schedules changed

J. Robert Owens, who recently became chairman of the airport board, said he thinks some airport issues that have been dealt with recently "would call into question maybe why these items weren't addressed in the past."

Since mid-January, Testa has changed construction schedules at the airport to save money and make sure the projects get done before the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games come to Central Kentucky in September 2010.

Owens said his fear when the spending scandal broke was that airport construction projects would not be kept on track.

"We're doing $66 million worth of construction out there that is really just starting now that will be completed next June or July (2010) ... It's really important to keep those projects on a quick pace," Owens said. He added that Testa's experience with construction projects and the Federal Aviation Administration were what attracted the airport board to him.

Testa has speeded up the schedule of the construction of the airport's new general aviation runway by about six weeks "to allow for any kinks," he said.

The original schedule, which had a mid-September 2010 completion date, was too tight to allow enough time to correct any problems before WEG, he said.

"I've got an end date of July 30, 2010," he said.

In addition, Testa has dealt with problems with the baggage screening system and a host of airport maintenance issues. The latter range from dealing with electrically operated toilets that don't flush when the power goes out to updating a neglected and time-worn fire-training center.

He has renegotiated contracts. One for maintaining identification badge readers went from $23,000 a year to $10,000 a year; and the airport's cell-phone package now costs $800 a month instead of $1,800. Text-messaging privileges for employees have been eliminated and those who have cell phones are no longer allowed to make personal calls on them.

The airport also is cutting the number of airport cars, including SUVs, from 12 to six. Only airport public safety chief Scott Lanter and maintenance head Les Sandusky will have airport cars that they are allowed to drive between work and home.

Other employees who need a car for job-related travel will have access to the remaining pool of vehicles. In some, cases, they will be using their own vehicles and will be reimbursed for mileage. Airport cars will be clearly marked as airport vehicles, Testa said. They were not in the past.

Now, he said, "there's a new feeling of openness and honesty" at the airport.

Airport employees who were "uptight and down" when he first arrived are now smiling a lot, Testa said.

"Let's just say there's just a huge sense of relief. In fact, if you were standing in front of this building you'd hear this huge sigh inside," Testa said.

"Some of these people weren't allowed to make decisions about what paper clips to buy."

In the past, those who purchased supplies for the airport had to use certain vendors; now items are bought based on their cost-effectiveness, he said.

"I think the most important thing that Fred (Testa) has done was provide stability and leadership at a particularly difficult time," Frankl said.

That will make Frankl's job easier, he said.

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