January 16, 2012 By: Timm Collins
The federal government is looking at a plan to cut funding to some airport control towers, including the one at Salem Municipal Airport.
The proposed cuts would eliminate towers serving airports without passenger air service.
At issue is the proposed 2013 federal budget, recommended by the Office of Management and Budget. The budget would eliminate the contract tower system under which the Federal Aviation Administration hires private companies to staff the control towers at some airports.
Salem Urban Development Director John Wales said cuts would mean one of three things: hours could be reduced, the tower would be closed or the city could find the money to keep the tower open.
Airport manager John Paskell said Salem doesn’t need air traffic controllers for traffic to take off and land but that safety and business could suffer without the tower.
“A lot of folks won’t fly in to Salem if they think it is not safe,” he said.
Estimates on costs to keep the tower open range from $100,000 to $500,000 to continue providing current service levels.
“I’m not aware of any funding source that would allow us to do that,” Wales said. “I can tell you the Airport Fund doesn’t have that.”
City funding to keep the tower open would most likely be a general fund expense, which would be a challenge, Wales said.
Last month, city manager Linda Norris said Salem needs to find $10.5 million in permanent cuts from the general fund during the next several years in order to keep a balanced budget.
Controllers in the 58-foot tower are in charge of keeping tabs on air traffic above Salem and help pilots navigate through taxiways.
Without it, pilots would communicate with one another to coordinate takeoffs and landings, as they do when approaching other landing areas without controllers.
Steve Larsen, owner of Salem Flight Training, said his company’s lesson plans would change, but the loss of the tower would have little effect on his business.
“I want to be clear: We do not want to lose the tower,” he said. “In Salem, the controllers in the tower prevent accidents. It’s that simple.”
The city has sent a letter to Oregon’s Congressional delegation urging them to put up a fight for Salem.
The letter signed by Salem Mayor Anna Peterson states that the the airport is in a “dense urban area,” and the tower “provides an elevated level of safety.”
Peterson asked the delegation to contact OMB and FAA to oppose cuts to this “essential air traffic safety program.”
The air traffic control tower in Salem operates between 7 a.m. and 9 p.m. and oversees a mix of traffic, including single-engine aircraft, corporate jets, and military and cargo traffic.
The airport recorded about 40,000 takeoffs and landings in 2011, Paskell said, which is down from the 100,000 in 2008.
The Oregon National Guard did not return calls before press time.
Source: SALEM STATESMAN-JOURNAL