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With closing delay, localities gain time to find money for air control towers

Mississippi airports preparing for a shutdown of control tower operations April 7 received a reprieve to June 15, a move the Federal Aviation Administration made in order to give localities time to determine if they can pay to keep the towers open.

The shutdowns are a consequence of the federal budget sequester and affect 149 airports with towers operated by contractors hired by the FAA. With the federal Department of Transportation, the agency’s parent, losing $636 million this year to the sequester, a number of additional towers around the country staffed by the FAA are slated for closing as well.

Towers at Golden Triangle Regional serving Columbus/West Point/Starkville (GTR and Meridian’s Key Field (MEI) won permanent removal from the closing list based on the support the airports provide military operations.

Getting the reprieve to June 15 Jackson’s Hawkins Field, Tupelo’s Tupelo Regional (TUP), Bay St. Louis’s Stennis International (HAS, Greenville’s Mid Delta Regional (GLH),and Olive Branch (OLV).

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 Sunday. Communities that do not agree to pick up the costs of running the towers could still 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.

Nationally, more than 1,000 contract air-traffic controllers were expected to lose their jobs as a result of the closures.

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.

That assessment is not universally accepted in Mississippi. Tom Heanue, executive director of the towerless Hattiesburg-Laurel Regional Airport, said 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, who also is president of the Mississippi Airports Association, in a recent interview.

“It’s not a safety issue, “ he insisted, while acknowledging he prefers “to keep things positive.”

While federal officials say safety will not be compromised, USA Today reported last Thursday that 30 people a year have been killed in airplane collisions since 1982, according to the newspaper’s analysis of federal records. Nearly half of the collisions occurred near airports that do not have a control tower, the newspaper reported.

Airport executives and others in the aviation sector speculate that the FAA made the cuts as painful as possible as away 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.




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