By Tracy Overstreet
Local funds won’t be used to keep the air traffic control tower open at Grand Island’s Central Nebraska Regional Airport if federal sequestration cuts are allowed to take effect.
“First of all, we don’t have the money to do that,” said Central Nebraska Regional Airport Executive Director Mike Olson.
Grand Island’s air traffic control tower costs about $360,000 a year to run, Olson told the Hall County Airport Authority board during a noon meeting Monday. The meeting had been rescheduled from last Thursday when severe weather struck the area.
The federal government pays 80 percent of the tower costs — $288,000 — while the local airport authority contributes the remaining 20 percent — $72,000.
But the bigger issue is control tower funding into the future, Olson said.
“If we do (completely fund the tower), even if it’s temporary, if the tower program comes back, the FAA will look at us and say we’re funding it, you’re on your own — you’re out of the program.” Olson said. “That’s a big issue.”
A loss of funding
U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and Federal Aviation Administrator Michael Huerta sent a letter last week to airlines, aircraft owners and airport operators outlining how federal spending cuts set to take effect April 1 will impact air transportation. As many as 47,000 FAA employees would have temporary furloughs, midnight shifts for air traffic controllers in more than 60 towers would be eliminated and another 100 air traffic control towers with fewer than 150,000 flight operations or 10,000 commercial operations per year would be closed.
That would close the tower at the Central Nebraska Regional Airport, plus numerous towers in Iowa and Kansas, officials in Grand Island said Monday.
Olson said the initial reaction may be to pick up the cost for a few months in hopes that leaders in Washington will resolve the spending problems, but that could jeopardize the tower even more, he told the airport authority board members.
“Do we want a short-term fix for a long-term loss potentially?” Olson asked. “I’m not sure that’s the way we want to approach this.”
Olson said the better plan is to express to Congressional leaders how important the air traffic control tower is to Grand Island. If action could be taken prior to Friday — the sequestration deadline, when further details on the cuts are to be released — the problem could be staved off, Olson said.
Even if action is taken prior to the April 1 closure of the tower, the shutdown could be turned into a temporary one, he said.
A time of growth
Olson said the air traffic control tower is vital to the growing passenger numbers in Grand Island. It hit a record 56,000 passengers last year through daily flights by American Eagle to Dallas/Fort Worth and twice a week flights by Allegiant Airlines to both Phoenix/Mesa and Las Vegas.
He’s meeting with Allegiant officials Wednesday about the possible tower loss. Olson said Allegiant had pulled out of the Fort Collins market in the past, in part, due to no control tower there.
The threat to the air traffic control tower comes at a growth time for Grand Island.
The airport parking lot was nearly full Monday and operations manager Doug Brown said parking on side aprons will occur soon as the spring and summer travel season picks up.
Next week the airport is slated to open bids for a potential new flight service to Florida.
“These developments would have a significant negative safety and efficiency impact on the air traffic control system,” Olson said.
Even though the airport is busy much of the time, it doesn’t always have flight staff or airport staff available.
Olson said there is little to no staff at Grand Island’s airport on Saturday afternoons after the American Eagle flight from Dallas has arrived.
“No one would know — except the tower — if we had an accident here,” he said. “It’s critical.”
“Air traffic controllers are the first line of defense for pilots and passengers in the event of an aircraft accident,” Olson said.
Olson said the cutbacks would have far-reaching affects — even impacting the training of future pilots.
Student pilots must study part of the time at an airport with a control tower. If those smaller airports cease to have control towers, student pilots would be forced to take lessons at busier airports with towers. That could introduce slow-flying student aircraft into a busy hub with larger aircraft — a mix that could reduce airport efficiency and even contribute to accidents.
“The FAA contract tower communities desire and deserve the safety benefits that these facilities provide,” Olson said. “We are encouraged by the successful and highly effective partnership that FAA, airports, contract controllers, air traffic control contractors, FAA controllers, aviation users have developed over the past three decades.”
‘A cost of lives’
Olson urged Congress to continue its support of the existing aviation programs.
Airport Authority board member Brian Quandt said there hasn’t been a major airline accident for a long time and now the federal government is trying to save money on the past safety record.
“For them to think that the are going to cheapen it up, it will come at the cost of lives,” Quandt said.
“There’s no substitute for safety,” Olson said.
Airport attorney Ron Depue said the cutbacks are all part of politics, which is being played ahead of safety in this case.
“We’re the victims of politics here,” he said.
The only way to make the need known is to contact elected leaders in Washington, said Olson. He has a trip to Washington D.C. set for March 19.
“We need to hold the president of the United States and the congressional delegation accountable for their actions — or in this case, their inactions,” Olson said.