By Yvonne Zipp
The planned closure of the air traffic control tower at the W.K. Kellogg airport in Battle Creek would negatively impact Western Michigan University’s College of Aviation.
BATTLE CREEK, MI – If the planned closure of the W.K. Kellogg’s air traffic control tower in Battle Creek goes ahead in April, it won’t ground the 38 planes of Western Michigan University’s College of Aviation.
But the closure will have a negative impact on the college’s ability to get its students in the air — at a time when more pilots are needed than ever, the college’s director of flight operations said.
“We’ve told everyone we can think of that this is a really bad idea,” said Capt. Steve Jones, director of flight operations for WMU’s College of Aviation, who was reluctant to put a percentage on the likely number of flights impacted. “Will it shut us down? No. But it will have an impact on how many airplanes we can put in the air at one time.”
The Battle Creek tower is one of six in Michigan – and 238 nationwide – that would be shuttered next month as a result of $600 million in automatic spending cuts to the Federal Aviation Administration as part of the sequester. Two other Michigan airports would see their midnight shifts eliminated. While the sequester took effect March 1, the FAA is required by law to give its workers advance notice. As a result, closures wouldn’t take place until early April.
Given that the W. K. Kellogg airport is one of the busiest in Michigan, Jones called its tower’s planned closure “ludicrous.”
Last year, there were 82,000 takeoffs and landings at the airport, said Jones.
A majority of those were generated by the aviation college – the third-largest program in the United States.
Before the tower closure was announced, the College of Aviation planned to generate 15,500 flight hours this academic year, Jones said. On Feb. 25 alone, the college had 184.6 flight hours in one day.
“We can do that pretty routinely, if we’ve got the tower to direct traffic,” said Jones.
The planned tower closure comes amid what Jones called “a perfect storm” of events that are creating a need for more trained pilots.
These Cirruses are part of Western Michigan University’s College of Aviation in Battle Creek.
Courtesy WMU As with many industries, baby boomer pilots are reaching the mandatory retirement age of 65, he pointed out. After a crash in Buffalo, N.Y., public law 111-216 mandated that a first officer, as well as the captain, be an airline transport pilot, with 1,500 hours of flight time. This year, regulations affecting mandatory pilot rest also take effect, said Jones. All of these will increase the need for qualified pilots.
“It’s going to be very interesting. I think the law of supply and demand is going to kick in in a major way,” said Jones.
Jones said that the decision to close the Battle Creek tower ignores the impact of general aviation on the industry. In addition to the College of Aviation, the Battle Creek airport serves companies such as Kellogg Co. and Eaton Corp., the Battle Creek Air National Guard, and Duncan Aviation, which says it is the largest private aircraft remanufacturing firm in the country.
In the meantime, the College of Aviation is hurriedly coming up with a Plan B.
“We’re putting our heads together as to how we’re going to deal with it if it happens,” said Jones. “We have a couple of weeks to come up with our final game plan if it really does.”
Many student flights could still take place at the Battle Creek airport, even without the tower, Jones said. But, to get their certificates, the roughly 400 students who are part of the college’s flight science program would have to fly with an instructor to nearby towered airports – such as Kalamazoo, Grand Rapids or Lansing – to perform solo flights. That would raise the costs of an already expensive program for students. (Federal regulations mandate that certain flights take place at airports with towers, Jones explained.)
“When I say I would rather not see the Battle Creek tower close, I really mean it from the heart,” said Jones.
The FAA has said it would consider keeping some towers open on a case-by-case basis, provided national interest can be proved. Its period of comment ends March 13, with a final decision on the Battle Creek tower expected March 18.