By Rolf Boone
The air traffic control tower at Olympia Regional Airport is among hundreds of towers at regional airports throughout the country that could close as a result of the federal government’s “sequestration,” the term used to describe $85 billion in automatic spending cuts.
Half the cuts would affect defense spending, with the rest spread among other federal agencies, including the Federal Aviation Administration.
The FAA could close 238 towers, including in Olympia, Tacoma (Tacoma Narrows), Renton (Renton Municipal), Everett (Paine Field), Yakima (Yakima Air Terminal/McAllister Field), Moses Lake (Grant County International), Walla Walla (Walla Walla Regional) and Spokane (Felts Field).
If the tower closes, Olympia Regional Airport would operate as a nontower-controlled field during the day — something it already does at night. That means pilots would self-report their takeoff and landing positions via radio but would not have the guidance provided by the tower, Olympia Regional Airport director Rudy Rudolph said.
“Pilots would be on their own,” he said. He added that the towers set to close have fewer than 150,000 takeoffs and landings per year.
The Olympia airport is home to private plane owners, corporate jets, military helicopter training, as well as the flight operations of the Washington State Patrol and the state Department of Natural Resources. The airport also has several tenants, such as Glacier Aviation, a flight school, and Northwest Helicopters, which provides a variety of helicopter services.
That activity generates some of the 3,000-5,000 takeoffs and landings a month during the winter, a number that doubles during the summer, air traffic manager Ken Legary said. Legary, who has worked at the airport for 11 years, is among five tower employees who might lose their jobs as a result of the budget cuts, he said.
Legary and others at the airport Monday echoed Rudolph’s concerns about safety.
Legary said those who work in the 100-foot tower provide the “big picture” and “make sense of the puzzle” for pilots flying to and from the airport.
“I hate to see safety become a bigger issue,” Glacier Aviation general manager Gary Bankers added, pointing out that many student pilots make their first solo flight in the area.
Northwest Helicopters President and Chief Executive Brian Reynolds said the tower allows the airport to function in all kinds of weather.
“The control tower has been a big help in getting us in and out of here,” he said.
In addition to safety, the loss of the tower also could result in a loss of business for the airport, Legary said, because some corporate jet insurance stipulates that they land at airports with control towers.