For seven years Stephanie Nicholds was a volunteer with the CYOW Airport Watch, but not anymore.
That group was originally made up of "plane spotters", the people who hang around airport fences watching airliners and noting registrations. After 911 the airport authority had an inclination to kick them all off the airport as a "security risk", but cooler heads prevailed and the local airport police convinced the airport authority that this group of people, who like hanging around fences with binoculars, could be a great resource for keeping an eye on things and improving security. So they got organized and the plane spotters got some identifying car door stickers, some hats and a phone number to call if they saw anything suspicious. Everybody won, except perhaps potential terrorists looking to sneak onto the airport. So far so good.
The fly in the ointment has been that Airport Watch chair Nelson Plamondon has had problems with Airport Watchers in the past saying uninformed things to the press. You see the problem is that when something goes wrong on the airport there is often an Airport Watcher on hand to see it. They become the only source for eyewitness information for the press. Plamondon's policy is that Airport Watchers should not make statements to the press. That is what got Stephanie Nicholds fired as a volunteer Airport Watcher this week.
Stephanie Nicholds just happened to be on hand on Wednesday 16 June 2010 when a United Airlines Express Embraer 145 went 500 feet (150 metres) off the end of the runway on landing and ended up in a ditch. The runway was wet and so when the press cornered her Nicholds said that the plane "was hydroplaning down the runway, and all of a sudden the airplane just ditched into the grass."
The Ottawa Macdonald-Cartier International Airport Authority accused Nicholds of a "serious breach" of the rules. It was the airport authority who passed the problem onto Plamondon for "corrective action."
Plamondon indicated that ever since a similar incident two years ago volunteers have been warned not to speak to the media, something he has been "constantly reminding" them of ever since.
For her part Nicholds thinks everyone has overreacted and stated to CBC: "I think they made a big mistake taking me off the watch. I just hope they can reconsider."
For many aviation and legal people this is probably an "open and shut" situation. Uninformed witnesses shouldn't be telling the press what happened in an aircraft accident, that is the Transportation Safety Board's job. Many posters on CBC.ca see this as a human rights issue, however, that the constitution guarantees freedom of speech, especially when this person was not even an employee, but just a volunteer.
Some of the most-agreed comments:
"what's to prevent her, as a citizen of a free country with supposedly free speech, from standing outside the airport perimeter and continuing to report what she sees, to the media, the aviation authorities, or whoever else she wants to speak to?"
"I can't find any clue, where the authority finds "serious breach" ? Stephanie expressed to the media what she witnessed, there is nothing hidden. This is ridiculous !"
"Yes you should never talk to the media until the powers that be get a chance to put a spin of all sorts on whatever happens. That way the powers can really confuse the issue and make lots of money trying to unravel the mess they created."
Perhaps the point here is really that if the plane was hydroplaning then the airport might be liable for not designing or maintaining the runway better to prevent the standing water hydroplaning requires. Nicholds may have helped make a court case against the airport authority that she volunteers for. That is except for one detail - she didn't see the aircraft hydroplaning, that happens between the tire and the runway. She did see the aircraft go off the end of the runway, but hydroplaning is a conclusion that will have to be determined or refuted by the tire and skid mark evidence and probably the Flight Data Recorder as well. Hydroplaning isn't an observation that can be made by an untrained witness outside the fence hundreds of yards away.
What do you think - should airport volunteers be allowed to exercise freedom of speech to speak to the press, even on subjects they are uninformed about or should they have to agree to keep quiet to volunteer there?
CBC article: Airport volunteer fired for talking to press