Transport Airports

U.S. sequester could cost 170 small town airports their control towers

Mar 08, 2013 12:37 am

Skift Take

Losing a tower doesn’t guarantee airport closure, but it’s the equivalent of putting a prison ball on operations. These five Oregon airports are hoping their military operations keep them off the axe list.

— Samantha Shankman

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Five small airports in Oregon are on the Federal Aviation Administration list for potential control tower closings under the automatic budget cuts that took effect March 1.

The FAA says they are among 238 small airports under consideration nationwide with low traffic volumes and control towers operated by contractors.

The FAA is to make a decision by March 18 on closing about 170 of them. A letter to airport managers from FAA officials said the decision would be based solely on the national interest, and will not take into account local community impacts. Even without sequestration, some towers may have to close, the letter added.

The Oregon airports are in Klamath Falls, North Bend, Pendleton, Salem and Troutdale.

If the towers close, the FAA says the airports will remain open. But pilots would be responsible for their own safety by talking to each other, instead of the tower.

The FAA has to cut $600 million under the automatic budget cuts. Other savings will come from furloughing FAA employees and other actions.

Most of the airports will be arguing that they should retain their towers because they serve Air National Guard aircraft in addition to private and commercial flights.

Salem Municipal Airport, with 32,000 private and cargo flights a year, will ask members of the Congressional delegation to try to convince the FAA that cutting back tower operations, rather than closing them down, would be a better solution.

“Though we can operate without a tower, we think it’s important to have one,” said Salem City Manager Linda Norris, adding that contract towers were taking the bulk of the FAA cuts.

The airport has runways that cross, and Air National Guard aircraft that complicate operations, she added.

Klamath Falls Airport Director John Longley said he hoped to keep their tower open because commercial and private planes share the single runway with high-performance Oregon Air National Guard F-15C fighter jets based at Kingsley Field. The tower is operated by military and civilian personnel in the 270th Air Traffic Control squadron.

“Forty-five percent of all our operations are military aircraft,” Longley said. “We are this sort of unique creature, a military-civilian air field.

The airport has about 37,000 takeoffs and landings a year. United Airlines has four flights a day out of Klamath Falls, but three of them take off or land when the tower is closed, Longley said.

The mix of civilian and military aircraft is complicated in summer, when air tankers fly in and out with fire retardant, he added.

In Pendleton, Eastern Oregon Regional Airport Manager Wayne Green said Air National Guard helicopters are using the facility, but he had not heard anything positive from the FAA.

“It’s sounding kind of bleak right now,” he said.

Portland-Troutdale Airport, located 10 miles east of Portland International Airport, will argue that its proximity to Portland International Airport, with 300 commercial flights a day and Air National Guard jets, makes retaining a tower a priority, said Port of Portland spokeswoman Kama Simonds.

Gov. John Kitzhaber was traveling in Europe, but has long felt automatic budget cuts was “the wrong filter to be making these kinds of decisions,” spokesman Tim Raphael said.

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