Golden Triangle, Key Field air control towers win reprieves

airplane-landing_rgbTies to military operations have exempted Golden Triangle Regional Airport near Columbus and Key Field in Meridian from closing under a funding cutoff set to begin April 7 under the federal budget sequester.

Five other “contract towers” in the state — Tupelo, Greenville, Oliver Branch, Jackson and Bay St. Louis – failed to gain exemptions under “national interest” criteria set by the Federal Aviation Administration. Personnel in the contract towers are non-FAA staffers hired by the FAA, a three-decade-old arrangement the government uses to handle 28 percent of air traffic management in the United States.

Airport executives and the spokesman for the American Airport Executives Association had speculated that few – if any – of the 186 contract slated to lose FAA funding would receive waivers. The association had warned members the bar had been sent extremely high and local hardships could not be considered – a circumstance that led some aviation industry officials in Mississippi and elsewhere to speculate the FAA had intentionally made the cuts as painful as possible in order to prod Congress into lifting the federal budget sequester.

Golden Triangle Regional and Key Field pinned their waiver hopes on showing that closing their respective towers would hurt national security.

Tom Williams, president of the Meridian Airport Authority, the entity that runs Key Field, voiced both surprise and relief recently at surviving the cut. “I didn’t think anybody would get off the list,” he said. “I was very surprised that we got off it.”

He attributed the exemption to support from the area’s military — the Air National Guard at Key Field, Meridian Naval Air Station as well as Columbus Air Force Base. “I couldn’t thank our military users enough who no doubt supported us on a national level,” he said.

The Key Filed tower is among five in the nation that serve as training towers for Air National Guard air controllers. Also exempted were the other four Air Guard training towers in Klamath Falls, Cheyenne, Wyo.; St. Joseph, Mo.; and Kapolei, Hawaii.

“In the early 1990s,” Williams said, “they determined that the smart way to train military controllers was at control towers. Meridian was the first one in the U.S. where the Air Guard trained.”

Had the sequester funding cutoff occurred, the civilian trainers of the future Air Guard controllers would have been laid off.

An immediate further impact would have been a stop to Navy, Air Guard and Air Force flights at Key Filed. They all must have a manned control tower to do a landing at a civilian airport, Williams said.

The loss of those flights would have cost Key Field 69 percent of its business — “a significant impact,” said Williams of the regional airport that is served commercially by Silver Airways.

The Meridian airport, which opened in 1930, has the longest public use runway in Mississippi at 10,003 feet, and a secondary runway of 4,599 feet.

Mike Hainsey, Williams’ counterpart at Golden Triangle Regional, sought a waiver for his tower operation based on the assistance the airport provides the busy Columbus Air Force Base, an installation that trains fighter pilot candidates.

Columbus Air Base began landing some of its training flights at Golden Triangle Regional March 1 after repair work began on one of the runways at the air base. Those flights are to continue for another nine months or so – but would have had to stop had the tower shut down.

Hainsey said the Golden Triangle Airport Authority agreed to fund the tower operation on its own for another three months, if necessary.

Meridian and the communities of the Golden Triangle — Columbus, West Point and Starkville — have worried that losing their airport control towers would weaken the standing of Meridian Naval Air Station and Columbus Air Force base in the next round of base closings. Support and assistance local communities provide the mission of their respective military installations factor significantly into base closing decisions.

Friday’s news removes that worry – at least for now. “We have a good facility with a control tower,” Williams, the Meridian Airport Authority chief, said, citing the assistance the tower provides the various military branches.

“That enhances their day-to-day operations and helps guard against BRACC,” he said, referring to the Base Realignment and Closure Commission, an independent federal panel that is likely to be revived as the military downsizes in the next few years.

While Williams is pleased and relieved Key Field will keep its tower, he worries about operations at the dozens of airports in Mississippi and around the country that will lose theirs.

Olive Branch, for instance, does 70,000 flights a year, well short of the 150,000 threshold the FAA set for maintaining contract tower funding. But 70,000 is a huge number of flights, especially for an airport so close to Memphis International, one of the world’s busiest commercial airports, Williams said.

Handling that many flights “without a tower is stupid,” he said.

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