National Association of Counties
Washington, D.C.

 Counties look at options for keeping air traffic control towers working

By Charlie Ban


Aitraffic.pngLarge planes  built by Boeing sit at Paine Field, an airport owned by Snohomish County, Wash. Its air traffic control tower was scheduled to be closed under the sequester, but was saved when the list was pared down.
Two days before contract air traffic control tower workers were set to be furloughed because of sequestration budget cuts, the Federal Aviation Administration delayed the closure of 149 towers, including at more than 84 county-owned airports.

The reprieve, now until June 15, was prompted by several legal challenges to the closure decisions, including one by Cuyahoga County, Ohio.

Exemptions for various Department of Transportation programs has left much of its $637 million share of the across-the-board cuts to fall on the FAA —   approximately 60 percent, according to FAA Administrator Michael Huerta. The FAA makes up 20 percent of the overall DOT budget.

The lower flight volume landed the affected airports on the closure list, which has already been reduced.

“I like to think having a control tower makes life safer,” said Peter Camp, Snohomish County, Wash. executive director. His county’s Paine Field Airport was on the original closure list. “We see this as an issue of safety and economics, and we feel strongly that safety is approved when you have mix of small planes with large ones.”

The Cuyahoga County Airport, uses as many as six controllers. In its appeal, the county argued that sequestration does not excuse the FAA from observing safety regulations, which would be limited by the tower’s closure.

It also alleges the FAA has not done its due diligence and perform a standard comprehensive review of operations for safety before deciding to close the tower.

The suit cited an incident in mid-March in which a Lear jet rolled off the runway but air traffic controllers were able to close the runway to prevent collisions with other planes. In addition, the weather patterns near Lake Erie bring snow and necessitate snowplows to clear the runways, well into May. Those plows are also coordinated by the tower personnel.

The Snohomish County airport houses North America’s largest maintenance and repair facility, and is also neighbor to Boeing’s wide-body aircraft plant. With more than 600 planes based there, the airport is the largest facility in the state.

A closed tower presents a special challenge to the airport with its mix of slower and faster planes. The multiple voice reports by pilots, which would become the standard operating procedure without an air traffic control tower, preclude use of the airport by larger, faster airplanes, Airport Director Dave Waggoner wrote in his successful appeal of the tower’s closure.

In Texas, the Lone Star Executive Airport, owned by Montgomery County, will keep air traffic controllers on the job for 90 more days, thanks to an agreement with the city of Conroe. Each party will contribute $25,000 monthly, and some relief may be coming from the state Department of Transportation. The Texas Transportation Commission is considering a grant to reimburse 90 percent of operating costs for air traffic controllers through the end of June.

“An uncontrolled airport isn’t unsafe, but its safety is improved (by controllers),” said Airport Director Scott Smith. “Corporate flights share the same traffic patterns with recreational flights, and things can get confusing. There are rules of the road, so to speak, but it’s so much better with controllers.”

Lone Star sees about 200 takeoffs and landings a day.

Smith said closure would hit the marketability of the adjacent business park because some corporate airplane contracts don’t allow pilots to fly into uncontrolled air fields.

“In general, an airport with a functioning air traffic control tower is more attractive,” he said.

The airport has a runway extension in progress, and that, plus the state, local and federal contributions to the $3 million tower would be a waste of money if it was out of use.

“There’s also the job loss issue,” he said of the four full-time and four part-time air traffic controllers employed there.

The relief from the state, Smith said, will buy time for a federal solution.

“Air travel is successful and economically viable on this level; I think there will be enough political support to save it.”

Ohio County, W.Va. is looking at raising money to pay the controllers at Wheeling Ohio County Airport from a variety of sources.

“We’re fully expecting to keep the airport open,” said Commissioner Tim McCormick. “We have intersecting runways, so it’s absolutely crucial to have order out there.”

The airport sits on the Marcellus Shale, and McCormick said proceeds from gas drilling could pay to keep the tower open.

The Owensboro-Daviess County Airport in Kentucky will go on without a control tower, which the county expects might lead to Allegiant Airlines restricting its takeoffs and landings to daylight hours.