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Views differ on how friendly skies will be without air control towers

The head of the Mississippi Airports Association insists the federal budget cutting responsible for closing air control towers at five of Mississippi’s regional airports won’t jeopardize flight safety.

Air collisions have killed an average of 30 people a year since 1982.

Air collisions have killed an average of 30 people a year since 1982.

On the other hand, the Federal Aviation Administration concluded in a 1990 study that the risk of a mid-air collision is three times greater around airports without control towers than around those with them, national newspaper USA Today reported in a story last week that noted air collisions in the United States have killed an average of 30 people a year since 1982 .

The FAA used the 1990 study that cited the increased risk around airports without towers as recently as 2005 when determining which airports should have towers. Many of those same airports deemed to need towers for safety reasons are among the 149 that will lose FAA tower funding.

Beyond the air collision fatalities, USA Today says, the collisions have seriously injured 167 people and destroyed or substantially damaged 729 airplanes.

The contract towers in Mississippi operated by air controllers hired and paid by the Federal Aviation Administration are scheduled to lose their federal funding starting June 15. The cutoff had been set for April 7 but the FAA wanted to give communities more time to search for funding to keep the towers open. Mississippi towers on the FAA hit list are at Hawkins Field, Jackson; Stennis International, Bay St. Louis; Mid Delta Regional, Greenville; an Tupelo Regional; and Olive Branch.

The FAA exempted Meridian’s Key Field and Golden Triangle Regional serving Columbus/West Point/Starkville based on support the airports provide nearby military operations.

The cutting off of funding for 149 towers around the country is the U.S. Department of Transportation’s answer to a federal budget sequester mandate that the department shave $636 million from its budget this year. A number of additional towers around the country staffed by the FAA are slated for closing as well.

The delay to June 15 comes after a number of airports filed suit to block the shutdowns, but it is only a temporary reprieve, the Washington Post reported last week. Communities that do not agree to pick up the costs of running the towers are still scheduled to lose them.

None of the Mississippi communities has indicated a willingness to cover the tower costs. “I don’t see where it is in the airport budget or city budget,” John Abramson, director of Tupelo Regional Airport, said of covering the cost of running the control tower.

The airports will be forced to switch a “uncontrolled airfield” status and rely on radio guidance for flight operations control.

An immediate impact at Tupelo Regional, according to Abramson, will be a slowdown in flight operations during bad weather. Communications snags will be the likely cause, he said.

Nationally, the closures are expected to cost the jobs of more than 1,000 contract air-traffic controllers.

From the start, the FAA’s decision drew sharp criticism from aviation groups, private pilots and affected communities. Despite assurances from FAA officials that safety would remain a priority, the groups worried that it would be compromised if the towers were closed, the Washington Post reported.

The Congressional Research Service concluded the towers closures will have “relatively small but measurable impact on safety and efficiency,” USA Today reports.

That risk assessment is not shared by Tom Heanue, executive director of the towerless Hattiesburg-Laurel Regional Airport and president of the Mississippi Airports Association. He said in an i9nterview late last month that he does not expect a drop off in safety at airports in the state that lose their towers.

“I do believe” the shutdowns are something that can be worked around,” said Heanue.

“It’s not a safety issue, “ he insisted, while acknowledging he puts a priority on trying “to keep things positive.”

Airport executives and others in the aviation sector speculate that the FAA made the cuts as painful as possible as a way to force Congress and the White House to find alternatives to the tower shutdowns.

That could be happening already, with a pair of senators from both parties seeking to restore the tower funding.

Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) said that he and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) plan to introduce legislation next week that would prohibit the FAA from closing any towers, the Washington Post reports. Moran had made an unsuccessful attempt to secure funding to keep the towers open during the debate over the continuing funding resolution, the newspaper said.

Meanwhile, the American Association of Airport Executives (AAAE) and its U.S. Contract Tower Association (USCTA) affiliate are turning to the courts to fight the FAA’s plan to close the contract air traffic control towers, Aviation Week reports.

The organizations filed a lawsuit in the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Sean Broderick, spokesman for the American Association of Airport Executives, said if pressed, the FAA would concede “it is hard to argue that this is the smart way to go about this.”





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