Asheville Regional Airport Director Lew Bleiweis is prepared to waste millions of taxpayer dollars due to an illogical bias.

He recently pulled the plug on a proposed joint venture with the city of Asheville that would have added an Asheville Fire Department crew to the airport’s existing response team. The agreement would have represented the ultimate win-win-win.

Bleiweis would have won, because he’d be bringing the Asheville Fire Department permanently on-site, thereby enhancing the safety of both airport customers and surrounding areas. The nationally accredited agency already provides medical and fire protection at the airport, but those firefighters are now based at a station on Hendersonville Road.

The Fire Department would have won by being able to respond much faster to any fire, auto accident or medical problem at or around the airport.

And city taxpayers would have won, because the joint venture would have saved up to $5 million, based on current cost estimates.

So why does Bleiweis want to turn this into an all-around losing proposition?

In killing the negotiations, he reportedly said that union employees would never work side by side with his safety team. But whether you are pro-union, anti-union or just don’t care, Bleiweis’ unfounded concerns will cost you money.

The airport and environs are already the Fire Department’s responsibility, and the agency will eventually have to assign a crew to the area. According to preliminary in-house research, that could be accomplished by spending up to $5.5 million buying land, hiring a slew of contractors and constructing a brand-new building — or simply by adding 1,500 square feet to the airport’s existing facilities, at far lower cost. According to early feasibility studies, a shared facility would also save the airport money through reduced operating expenses.

Meanwhile, the distance between the current station and the airport hinders the Fire Department’s ability to respond to service calls quickly. Slower response times hurt a department’s ISO rating; this increases insurance rates for residents and businesses (which must pass those costs on to customers, who are thus doubly penalized).

Money aside, however, Bleiweis is playing fast and loose with something even more important: public safety. ISO ratings reward faster response times because, in a fire or health emergency, every minute counts. City Council adopted 5:12 as the optimal response time, based on national standards; within the city limits, the Fire Department achieves this 90 percent of the time. But the average response time from Hendersonville Road to the airport is 7:20. To give just one example of how this could affect you, cardiac patients’ chances of survival are 30 percent lower if it takes more than 5:12 to begin resuscitation efforts.

History has shown that our firefighters can work together effectively, despite many differences — including union membership. Currently, about 80 percent of Asheville firefighters belong to Local 865, meaning one in five aren’t union members. Yet these employees work side by side every single day, live together one-third of each year, and entrust one another with their lives. To my knowledge, there has never been a single personnel problem attributed to union-membership disputes.

Furthermore, since the late 1980s, we’ve shared a station with the Skyland Fire Department. Union membership is not and never has been an issue there. We also provide mutual aid to every surrounding county department: None of them are unionized, and we fight fires with one or another of them just about every month.

Further undermining Bleiweis’ argument is the fact that both airline pilots and Transportation Security Administration personnel are unionized. Is the airport director suggesting that his staff will refuse to work with any of these professionals? Pilots flying into Asheville Regional Airport don’t want to think they’re entering enemy territory.

Bleiweis doesn’t deserve to hold a position where he can treat taxpayer money and the airport’s budget so frivolously. The Airport Authority’s board should demand his resignation.

— Mike Marshall, a retired former captain in the Asheville Fire Department, is president of the Asheville Firefighters Association, Local 865.

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One thought on “Highflier

  1. I was the first public official to speak out on this issue in a speech on July 17. The media managed to overlook the matter despite a press release issued to dozens of regional outlets.

    Among other things, I noted:
    “Our Airport Director is willing to risk our safety, the safety of the thousands of tourists and business travelers who come to Asheville, because he is politically opposed to unionization. And he’s willing to force Asheville tax payers to spend up to $4 or $5 million we don’t need to spend in order to further his political agenda, which is the Republican political agenda. Millions of dollars, and putting people’s lives at risk, because he is afraid his work force will see that union workers get higher pay, have better benefits and are better trained for the work that ensures we are safe in the event of a fire or a building collapse or an explosion at our airport.”

    I join with Mike Marshall in calling for the firing of the Airport Director.

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