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Watch Now: Local American Airlines maintenance base readying long-idled planes for flight
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Exhibiting evidence of much-needed life for the COVID-crushed airline industry, American Airlines is continuing to prep its jets for a return to revenue service.

All told, American needs to get 38 more idled planes ready for revenue flights. Of those, eight are getting the once-over at Tech Ops-Tulsa, American’s largest maintenance base.

“Our load factors for spring break were around 80%, which is fantastic,” said Ed Sangricco, managing director of Tulsa base maintenance. “The bookings are starting to come back to pre-pandemic numbers, which is also fantastic.

“We’ve been prepping for this for about a year. We feel that 2021 is going to be a year of building, of transition.”

American reported an $8.9 billion loss and 62% decline in revenue for 2020. At the peak of the pandemic, flight travel demand dropped by 95% nationally, turning Tulsa into a makeshift morgue for American Airlines aircraft.

At one time, 70 planes were parked at Tech Ops-Tulsa in roughly the past year, Sangricco said. Among those were two dozen 737 Maxes, which were grounded because of a pair of fatal crashes. All the Maxes have since left the base.

“Airplanes are built to fly,” he said. “When they park for long periods of time, there are lot of things we have to do to keep them current so that when it’s time for them to fly, we can put them back into service.”

Plane re-activation takes about three to four days, Sangricco said.

“We’ve had to apply manpower for the past year toward this project over and above that of our normal maintenance program here at Tulsa base,” he said. “Fortunately, we have a significant large group of professionals here that do a great job. Our technicians and our support groups are wonderful.”

Larry Toering, a flight operations technical captain on the Boeing 737 and 777, supports maintenance operations on return-to-service aircraft.

He said the pandemic “caught us off guard and set us back initially … But we are obviously coming back. It’s great to see people coming out and starting to fly again. It’s great to start to see a light at the end of the tunnel.

“Part of what we are doing is everything focuses on safety … When it comes to the flight side, even beyond what the FAA and the manufacturers recommend, we even take that a step further and are actually doing these maintenance validation flights now prior to the aircraft entering revenue service, just to absolutely make sure that when we put the aircraft into the air under air loads, etcetera, as we’re flying that we have absolute normal operations of the aircraft. Because safety is paramount.”

With nearly 28 years with the airline, Sangricco took over at Tech Ops-Tulsa in January after the December departure of Erik Olund, who had overseen the Tulsa base in May 2017.

In March, Congress approved the American Rescue Plan, which approved additional Payroll Support Program funding and saved jobs for 400 local American Airlines workers who had been targeted for furloughs.

As a result of the pandemic, the Boeing 757 and 767, Embraer 190 and Airbus 330 are among the fleets that American has retired permanently, Sangricco said.

“We will be a little bit smaller of an airline overall, but we’re going to be a lot leaner,” he said. “We took complete advantage of this time that we have been down for a year to reinvent ourselves and to get ready for what we hope to be a very busy travel season this summer.”

The rise in COVID inoculations has boosted passengers’ return to air travel, Sangricco said.

“The vaccinations being out have made a huge difference,” he said. “The more people get vaccinated, the more bookings go up. They are directly related.

“There was a lot of uncertainty in the very beginning. Now, there’s nothing but optimism. There’s nothing but good feelings. The future looks incredibly bright, and we’re ready to get back flying.”


Photos: A look inside the largest aircraft maintenance facility in the world

Gallery: A look inside the largest aircraft maintenance facility in the world


Local
Transportation commissioner questions why a tribal-state road project is stalled
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OKLAHOMA CITY — A member of the governing board of the Oklahoma Department of Transportation is questioning whether Gov. Kevin Stitt is attempting to influence road projects that involve state tribes.

Transportation Commissioner T.W. Shannon asked Transportation Secretary Tim Gatz earlier this week about whether Stitt’s office intervened in a proposed new interchange at Interstate 35 and Oklahoma 9 to alleviate congestion near the Riverwind Casino, which is owned by the Chickasaw Nation. The $17 million project would include $10 million from the tribe, plus an easement donation, Shannon said.

The project has been on the state’s eight-year plan, which was designed to eliminate politics from road projects, Shannon said.

Shannon is a former Oklahoma House speaker and current CEO of the Chickasaw Community Bank. The bank is owned by the Chickasaw Nation, of which he is a member. Current House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka, appointed Shannon to the Transportation Commission.

In 2019, lawmakers gave Stitt considerably more power over some large agencies, including the Oklahoma Department of Transportation.

A March 22 meeting that would have put the I-35/Oklahoma 9 project into motion was canceled, Shannon said, adding that he was blindsided. The project is in his district.

Gatz said that in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s McGirt decision in July, his office is seeking additional input from Stitt’s office due to the uncertainty the historic case created.

The nation’s high court determined that the Muscogee (Creek) Nation had never been disestablished by Congress for the purposes of federal criminal law.

Shannon said McGirt dealt with criminal matters, not civil matters.

Gatz, who serves at the pleasure of Stitt, said McGirt created uncertainties “that are going to cause the department to engage the Governor’s Office for advice and counsel on a regular basis as we work our way through tribal agreements.”

He said the project, in some form, will be completed.

A listing of the number of state-tribal road projects and dollar amounts was not immediately available from the Oklahoma Department of Transportation.

In a highly unusual move, Shannon asked that the issue about tribal-state partnerships be placed on the agenda for the Transportation Commission’s May meeting and that pertinent emails and meetings with Stitt’s office be provided to the commission.

Stitt’s office has had a strained relationship with the state’s tribes, which successfully sued him to get a ruling that their gaming compacts with the state had automatically renewed. The action came after Stitt sought new compacts with higher exclusivity fees from the tribes.

Legislative leaders successfully sued Stitt after he made compacts with some tribes that were not authorized under state law.

The Governor’s Office was asked if it had told ODOT to hold off on or slow down road projects involving partnerships with the tribes in light of McGirt. The office offered a statement that was not responsive.

“Oklahomans elected Governor Stitt to provide transparency and accountability for all investments of taxpayer dollars, which is now more important than ever given the uncertainty caused by McGirt,” said Carly Atchison, a Stitt spokeswoman. “The governor is not surprised that Commissioner Shannon is strongly advocating for the Chickasaw Nation’s pet project leading directly to one of its casinos.”


McGirt v. Oklahoma: Supreme Court decision and its aftermath

McGirt v. Oklahoma: Supreme Court decision and aftermath

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Oklahoma opens COVID-19 vaccination efforts to nonresidents
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Oklahoma will expand its COVID-19 vaccine offerings to nonresidents effective Thursday, the state Department of Health announced Wednesday.

“While our focus has been and will continue to be on vaccinating Oklahomans, we have always known there would be a point at which supply and increasing capacity would allow us to welcome residents from neighboring states into Oklahoma to get vaccinated,” Deputy Health Commissioner Keith Reed said in a release.

That point is now, and the state is happy to welcome nonresidents to bolster efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19 in the region, which provides an “extra layer of protection” for residents.

“This is the right thing to do for our neighbors,” Reed said. “We hope to see other states that have fared well in administration rates follow suit as we all continue to work together to bring an end to this pandemic.”

Vaccine supply has increased consistently week over week, Commissioner of Health Dr. Lance Frye said, and additional access points for the vaccine are opening daily.

Last week, the state surpassed 2 million doses administered.

“We have a lot to be hopeful about in the coming months,” Frye said. “But it’s going to require a continued commitment to our mitigation efforts. Now is not the time to let our guard down. We encourage Oklahomans to remain vigilant in following the 3 W’s as we work to vaccinate as many people across the region as possible and return to a sense of normalcy. If you have not yet signed up for your vaccine, I urge you to do so as soon as possible — it’s the best thing you can do to protect yourself, your family and your community.”

The vaccine is available to anyone 16 or older. The Pfizer vaccination is approved for 16- and 17-year-olds. The Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines are available to those 18 or older.

Vaccine appointments may be scheduled through OSDH’s vaccine portal at vaccinate.oklahoma.gov or through the Saint Francis Health System at saintfrancis.com/getvaccinated. Vaccinefinder.org also helps users find vaccination sites in their area.


Featured video: How does the state’s change to weekly COVID-19 numbers reporting impact Tulsa Health Department?

Q&A: State vaccination portal help and other guidance as Oklahoma enters Phase 4

Q&A: State vaccination portal help and other guidance as Oklahoma enters Phase 4

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Despite additional COVID-19 cases and deaths in updated reporting, data jumps not indicative of virus proliferation, state says
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Thousands more positive COVID-19 tests and deaths than would be considered regular were added to the state’s data dashboard on Wednesday, but the state’s top epidemiologist says it’s not indicative of virus proliferation.

The jumps are the result of an error and data reporting changes, the Oklahoma State Department of Health reported.

State Epidemiologist Dr. Jared Taylor warned journalists on Tuesday that the coming weekly data upload would cause case numbers to appear artificially high.

The state on Wednesday reported a total of 441,906 confirmed cases of the virus since the pandemic’s beginning, an increase of 3,542 from the last weekly update. And the state reported 6,669 investigated deaths, a jump of 1,716 from the last report.

Both data bumps were sure to catch attention, Taylor said, but neither, when placed into the context of when the positive tests or deaths were occurring, changes the state’s interpretation of the data then or now.

About 1,300 of those positive tests surfaced sometime last week after data specialists determined that reports from one lab had not been integrated into the collective data for nearly six weeks, Taylor said.

The state is in the process of moving away from its Public Health Investigation + Disease Detection of Oklahoma system for reporting cases, and such a step requires labs to use a new form of data transfer called HL7 messages.

“We found that this one lab had been reporting what they thought were functional and appropriate files that would go into our system and be integrated into our reporting, but unfortunately it was not,” Taylor said. “We had those files going in, and the cases contained therein sort of going into an abyss and being lost.”

Taylor declined to identify the lab, saying the error did not affect anything beyond reporting within the State Department of Health.

The majority of the positive tests in question were confirmed between December and February, with some trickling into March, Taylor said, and the Health Department completed a full investigation to determine that the error was a “one-off situation with one lab.”

Taylor said he couldn’t promise that such a situation wouldn’t happen in the future, but he said changes have been made in an effort to avoid a repeat mistake.

As for the 1,700 jump in investigated deaths, Taylor said the state created an algorithm to speedily work through some “easier” case investigations that don’t necessarily require human review.

The addition was expected to bring the state’s investigated death totals closer to the total based on death certificates reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics.

As reported deaths totals between the two grew increasingly untethered — at last update, the state reported nearly 3,000 fewer deaths in Oklahoma than the CDC did — Taylor said the Health Department began looking for ways to speed up the investigative process.

Enter “a very well structured and defensible but automated approach.”

Taylor said the use of the algorithm will not reflect a full and complete tally of overall deaths, as many in-depth investigations that require human attention are ongoing. The additional deaths reported Wednesday occurred between April 2020 and March of this year.

The CDC reported 7,994 provisional deaths on Wednesday.

Taylor said he’s “cautiously optimistic” about the state’s positioning in the fight against COVID-19. Hospitalizations have remained relatively level in the past few weeks.

A total of 213 COVID-19 positive patients remained hospitalized across the state on Tuesday, the latest data available, with 56 in ICU beds, the state reported.

But he emphasized that cases are still occurring, as are deaths.

Vaccinations have, however, caused a “notable” drop in cases recorded among populations considered most vulnerable to severe complications or death, Taylor said.

“We don’t want to rest on our laurels in any regard,” Taylor said. “While we are as happy as we are with the vaccine efforts, we can’t get complacent, because we are not at the point statewide where we can feel confident that that vaccine uptake will prevent a resurgence if Oklahomans become complacent.

“It’s incumbent upon Oklahomans to seek out that vaccination opportunity.”

More than 2 million vaccinations had been administered in the state as of Saturday, according to OSDH data, and 705,877 Oklahomans had completed a vaccine series.

Gov. Kevin Stitt was vaccinated publicly last week to celebrate the state’s move into Phase 4 of its vaccine priority plan.

Since then, vaccinations have been widely available in the state and open to all Oklahoma residents age 16 and older. Vaccinations will open to nonresidents on Thursday.

Vaccine appointments may be scheduled through OSDH’s vaccine portal at vaccinate.oklahoma.gov or through the Saint Francis Health System at saintfrancis.com/getvaccinated. Vaccinefinder.org also helps users find vaccination sites in their area.


Oklahoma governor announces Phase 4 of COVID-19 vaccine distribution

Q&A: State vaccination portal help and other guidance as Oklahoma enters Phase 4

Q&A: State vaccination portal help and other guidance as Oklahoma enters Phase 4


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