May 24, 2020

FCC to investigate airport radio services

ROCKLAND — The County Commissioners decided Tuesday to make a federal case out of allegations that the radio system at Knox County Regional Airport is illegally promoting one of the airport’s two ground services businesses.

The commissioners voted unanimously to ask the Federal Communications Commission to investigate charges made last week by Penobscot Air Service that Robert Stenger is violating his FCC license to operate the airport’s UNICOM radio system by using it as a marketing tool for Downeast Air Service, which he owns.

PAS and DAS compete to provide ground services for aircraft and travelers, such as fuel, maintenance and ground transportation.

UNICOM is an air advisory radio system used at airports, including Knox County, which do not have a control tower. FCC regulations allow only one UNICOM licensee per airport and state that ground-to-air transmissions be limited to information essential to safe and expeditious air travel, such as weather and runway conditions. The FCC also requires that any information about available ground services must be imparted in an impartial manner.

Clint and Hannah Demmons, who purchased PAS in April, told the commissioners last Tuesday that Stenger regularly directs incoming pilots to his fueling area, sometimes enticing them with offers of free lobster and ground transport already lined up. The Demmonses offered to make available to the commissioners tape recordings of Stenger’s transmissions to back up their claim.

Stenger last week denied the allegations, saying his transmissions only impart advisory information, adding that most incoming pilots line up ground services at his business well in advance.

Stenger has held the airport’s UNICOM license for 32 years and operates the system as a condition of his lease with the county for space at the airport. While the Demmonses contend Stenger is abusing the system in retaliation for the more aggresive marketing effort they have given the long-standing PAS, Stenger says PAS’s new owners are merely frustrated that their new business is not performing as well as expected.

After hearing PAS’s charges last week, the commissioners directed Airport Manager Greg Grotton, who has refereed the growing dispute since spring, to listen to the tapes and to report his findings.

Instead, Grotton said Tuesday, PAS has decided to take its case directly to the FCC. Clearly relieved at being taken from the middle of the fray, Grotton said the course set by PAS “is a great idea. Let them state their claims and let the FAA decide. Even if the county feels that Downeast is in violation, we have no power to revoke their license. Only the FCC can do that.”

The commissioners supported Grotton’s suggestion that they write to the FCC, informing the agency of possible violations and asking that the UNICOM transmissions be monitored. The commissioners also will notify Downeast of their action.

Although only the FCC has the power to revoke the UNICOM license, Grotton said the county can remove UNICOM operations as a condition of Downeast’s lease and can object to a renewal of the license when it comes due next spring.

Stressing that his recommendation in no way implied a finding that Downeast is in violation, Grotton said the FCC “has said it is willing to cooperate so this can be settled once and for all. They can monitor in a way that no one knows when they’re doing it, and if we request monitoring, they will monitor.”

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