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Closings of 7 airport towers in state may become permanent

Jackson’s Hawkins Field air traffic control tower and six other control towers in Mississippi are among 173 scheduled to be closed nationwide in early April, as the Federal Aviation Administration shuts off funding for those services to accommodate the fiscal sequester of $86 billion for the remainder of 2013.

In addition to Hawkins (HKS), Mississippi airports on the list are Tupelo’s Tupelo Regional (TUP), Bay St. Louis’s Stennis International (HAS), Columbus’ Golden Triangle Regional serving Columbus/West Point/Starkville (GTR), Greenville’s Mid Delta Regional (GLH), Meridian’s Key Field (MEI) and Olive Branch (OLV).

Bonnie Wilson, COO of the Jackson Municipal Airport Authority, said previously she had been told the Hawkins tower had already been shut down. Nonetheless, flights in and out of the general aviation airport, will be handled by air controllers at Jackson’s Medgar Wiley Evers International Airport.

The key thing is that they have assured airport officials the Jackson International tower is not shutting down, Wilson said.

While the shutdowns at the community and regional airports are related to the sequester, the FAA is warning the Mississippi airports and ones of like size around the country that federal funding for the towers may not be restored.

The FAA will base its funding on traffic counts and whether closure of a particular tower will hurt the national interest. “The FAA is unable to consider local community impact that does not affect the national interest,” the aviation agency says.

The agency, an arm of the Federal Department of Transportation, suggests the airports consider taking part in the non-federal contract tower program, which essentially is a privatization of the total of 248 airports participate in the program as of the start of 2012, according to the Tower Association’s 2011 annual report. The association, an affiliate of the American Association of Airport Executives, claims the non-federal contract tower program actually enhances flight safety. Further, it saves substantial money, the organization says.

“Members of Congress and DOT/FAA point to this program as an example of how

FAA, in partnership with local governments and the private sector, can provide an important service to aviation users at a substantially reduced cost to taxpayers,” the Tower Association report said.

The pending shutdowns of the Mississippi control towers and towers throughout the country are part of the FAA’s move to reduce spending by $600 million under automatic federal budget cuts caused by the sequester, a policy of automatic across-the-board budget cuts agreed to by President Obama and Congress as part of an August 2011 deal to lift the federal debt ceiling.

The FAA has notified its Jackson International operation that personnel furloughs are forthcoming. COO Wilson said she is unsure at this point whether controllers or support staff will be part of the furloughs. “It’s up to FAA to determine the operational efficiency,” she added.

An FAA spokeswoman said all employees of the U.S. Department of Transportation must accept one day of unpaid furlough every two weeks, the standard federal pay period.



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