Safety assessments mixed over loss of air traffic tower guidance

airplane-landing_rgbThe early April shutdown of a handful of air traffic control towers at small airports around Mississippi should not diminish flight safety, airport operators say.

But directors at a couple of the airports say loss of the towers is worrisome nonetheless. And at the national level, aviation trade organizations are raising concerns over flight safety.

The so-called “contract towers” in Mississippi operated by air controllers hired and paid by the Federal Aviation Administration are scheduled to lose their federal funding starting April 7. The seven Mississippi towers on the FAA hit list are at Hawkins Field, Jackson; Stennis International, Bay St. Louis; Key Field, Meridian; Mid Delta Regional, Greenville; Golden Triangle Regional, Columbus/West Point/Starkville; Tupelo Regional and Olive Branch.

Funding cut offs are ahead for 186 of the nation’s 246 contract towers, a quasi-privatized system the FAA adopted after the air traffic controller strike of the early 1980s. The contract towers handle 28 percent of air traffic management in the United States. Coupled with the loss of an additional 49 FAA-staffed towers on the closure list, nearly 50 percent of air control towers nationwide would be shut down.

The head of Golden Triangle Regional Airport says the loss of the tower will prevent Air Force training aircraft from nearby Columbus Air Force Base from using Golden Triangle’s runway. The Air Force trainees began practicing landings at the civilian airport March 1 while a runway is worked on at the Columbus base, but must stop if the tower closes, said Mike Hainsey, airport director, citing an Air Force ban on its pilots landing at facilities that lack control towers.

“It’s got huge implications for BRACC (the Base Realignment and Closure Commission),” Hainsey said of what is expected to be the eventual return of the independent panel that recommended a host of military installation closings in the middle of the last decade.

Among many other mission-related factors, a BRACC panel weighs the support and operational enhancements communities provide nearby military bases in deciding whether to give a base a thumbs up or thumbs down.

“That’s one of the reasons my airport authority has agreed to keeping it open to the tune of about $30,000 a month,” he added, referring to the Golden Triangle Airport Authority’s decision to fund the tower operation for at least three months after the early April elimination of the FAA money. The tower is run by four employees and operates from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m..

Meanwhile, Tupelo Regional Airport director Josh Abramson said the ground radio procedures that would replace tower guidance could cause communications snags for aviators using his air strip in bad weather. “It would slow down operations in inclement weather,” he said.

With a tower, a pilot can cancel instrument flight status in the air and proceed to land, making it possible for the next approaching aircraft to be cleared for landing. Typically, this can be done equally as well with a ground radio system that would notify Memphis International Airport’s tower that an aircraft has landed and canceled instrument flight status. The problem occurs when the weather turns bad and the radio can’t communicate with Memphis, Abramson said.

When the ground radio can’t talk to Memphis, the first plane’s pilot must land, depart the plane and go into the operations office to call the Memphis tower and alert it to cancellation of instrument flight status.

In the meantime, the approaching aircraft must circle in bad weather until Memphis gets the cancellation from the first aircraft and clears the second one for landing, Abramson said. “They are not going to clear the next pilot to land until that pilot (the first one) has indicated he has landed safely.”

Like his counterpart Hainsey, Abramson is hoping for a public interest waiver based on the two regional banking headquarters in Tupelo — Bancorp South and Renasant — and the city’s designation as a foreign trade zone.

Hainsey is resting his hope for a waiver on the support role Golden Triangle Regional provides the Air Force. He said he received word from the FAA last Friday that it needed another week to weigh waiver requests.

The Mississippi airports as well as others across the nation face long odds on the waivers, said Sean Broderick, spokesman for the American Airport Executives Association.

The strong public interest in keeping the towers open must be wider than benefits to the community, Broderick said.

“The bar is pretty high, as we understand it,” he said, and added he would not be surprised if the FAA refuses to grant any waivers..

Specifically, the FAA says the airport must show its tower closing would result in significant threats to the national security, significant adverse economic impact that is beyond the impact on a local community, significant impact on multi-state transportation, communication or banking/financial networks, or cause the loss of a tower at a critical diversionary airport to a larger hub.

“We know it is extremely limited in scope,” Hainsey said of the waiver factors.

Some among the American Airport Executives Association membership as well as a few Mississippi airport directors suspect the FAA is making the operational cuts as painful as possible as a way of budging Congress to act. It’s the only way something is going to happen on The Hill, they say.

Broderick, the association spokesman, said if pressed, the FAA would concede “it is hard to argue that this is the smart way to go about this.”

The FAA’s inspector general has assessed the tower contract tower system as “some best money spent in aviation,” the association spokesman added.

He emphasized that airports were designated for towers for a reason and in most instances that reason related to safety.

“You certainly are not increasing safety,” he said.

Not surprisingly, the U.S. Contract Tower Association agrees with Broderick. “If contract towers are closed because of sequestration, many local communities would lose the significant safety benefits of” air traffic controlled towers,” the association said in a recent statement.

The FAA is encouraging communities to keep the towers open by picking up the tab for them. But with local governments under fiscal strain, that is an unlikely long-term solution. “I don’t see where it is in the airport budget or the city budget,” said Tupelo Regional’s Abramson.

With the exception of the temporarily-funded Golden Triangle Regional Airport, Mississippi’s contract tower airports next month are expected to become “un-controlled airfields” that must rely on radio-ground operations. It’s a system that has worked well for Hattiesburg/Laurel Regional Airport, which does not have a control tower, said Director Tom Heanue, who is also president of the Mississippi Airport Association, who is also president of the Mississippi Airport Association.

He insisted the tower closings do not constitute “a safety issue,” and noted Hattiesburg/Laurel’s lack of a tower has not prevented it from safely handling commercial and military traffic as well as the Boeing 757s and MD80s that fly in visiting football teams for University of Southern Mississippi games.

Pilots have their flight guides and published frequencies for the airfields. “They put their frequencies on when they get within 15 miles and talk to a fixed-base operator,” he said.

Heanue said he thinks some adjusting will be needed but does not see huge problems ahead. “I think the Mississippi airports can handle it,” he said. “It’s something that can be worked around.”

Bottom line: This should not affect anyone’s travel — at least in Mississippi, he said.

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