This is the first of a two-part series.
Beginning in March, 189 airports nationwide received official confirmation that their air traffic control towers were to close by the end of the year and a result of federal sequestration. Some Indiana airport towers are still slated to close, but the terms have been changed.
The Columbus-based engine manufacturer Cummins keeps three planes at its hangar at the Columbus Municipal airport. Flying jets like these requires longer runways so they can take off and land.
But what concerns airport managers is that many large corporations like Cummins will not fly their planes into airports without manned towers.
Tower Closures Postponed
Columbus Municipal Airport has seen various dates for its tower to be shuttered. Initially they were slated to close April 7. Then the Federal Aviation Administration issued a timetable moving the closing date back two weeks to April 21.
Airport manager, Brian Payne, was excited to have the two extra weeks but even more excited when he learned he would get even more time.
On April 5, the FAA issued a statement saying all 149 tower closures would be moved to June 15. This allowed the FAA time to deal with the legal challenges the changes pose.
Payne says the FAA probably got a lot negative feedback about how quickly they set closing dates prompting them to extend all tower closures.
“There’s not an opportunity to go out and get those proper numbers and put the proper things in place,” he says. “They are now saying there won’t be phase that all 149 will be closed on June 15, so unless some other form of continuing resolution we come about through the house and senate, I can certainly see that that date is going to stand.”
Payne says if his FAA funding ceases, he and the airport board are considering three options: either the airport itself pays the full cost of contracting with an air traffic control company for continued use of the tower, air traffic control personnel are made city employees or the tower shuts down completely.
Shane Cordes is the President and CEO of Midwest Air Traffic Control, the company which currently operates the towers in both Columbus and Monroe County. His company is largely paid from a federal cost-share program which gives cash to airports to keep their towers running. Cordes says that program saves taxpayers an estimated $300 million dollars yearly.
“Our program has been a shining example of an industry-government partnership that has allowed the government and FAA particularly to be most cost effected while remaining focused on aviation safety and efficiency,” he says. “So it’s my perspective that programs like this, especially at a time like this, should be mirrored and not eliminated.”
Sixty-nine out of the 85 domestic facilities Midwest operates are slated to close, which is a move which could decimate Midwest’s business.
Monroe County Airport Holds Out Hope
Monroe County Airport’s tower closure is set for the end of September, but Airport Manager Bruce Payton hopes it will be spared. Payton says FAA officials have asked managers to prove the loss of their tower would be a detriment to the whole nation. If that bar can be cleared, there may yet be hope of staving off a shutdown.
“As the closest airport to Crane with the level of sophistication we have, I believe they are going to continue to use this airport,” Payton says. “And I felt that in my points I made, this is of national interest. That these key military leaders have the safest possible approach and departure to this community that we can give them, and that was with air traffic control.”
The airport is still preparing for the bad news though. Payton and the board of directors have asked private air traffic control companies to prepare bids to run the tower. That would cost Monroe County approximately $150,000 more a year, which is money county officials are not sure exists.
If an airport decides to operate as a non-federal tower, officials can enter a leasing agreement with the FAA to keep the agency’s equipment on site.
Still, managers seem worried the issue may boil down to the big airports crowding out the small. They believe some businesses will opt to use Indianapolis Regional Airport runways over their own if air traffic control towers go dark.