By Matthew Peddie
Budget cuts brought about by sequestration could force the closure of more than 100 air traffic control facilities — including control towers at smaller airports across the US.
Kissimmee Gateway Airport, which is just outside of Orlando, is on the list of towers which could be shut down April 7th. City leaders say that would put the brakes on one of the main economic drivers in the area.
“It’s an economic engine, not only necessarily because of what happens on the field, but also what happens adjacent to it,” says Mayor Jim Swan. He says the economic impact of the airport is estimated around $100 million a year. Swan says losing the tower will make it tough to market a $3.2 million dollar business airpark which is being built with state and local funds.
A large part of the airport’s traffic includes business jets bringing people to functions at nearby Disney World and conventions on Orlando’s International Drive.
Last year the airport saw 129,000 departures and landings from a mix of business jets, and propeller planes. Aviation director Terry Lloyd says losing the control tower- which is operated under a contract with the Federal Aviation Administration- could decrease flights to under 100,000 a year.
“I think it’s something that we have a lot of dread [about], and there are a lot of unknowns,” he says.
He says having a tower to help manage traffic makes Kissimmee a more attractive destination for business jets.
“The corporate traffic- that’s kind of on the top of their checklist, if there’s an airport with a tower, that’s where they go,” he says. “And then if there’s not a tower they make a decision- is it important enough for us to go in there, and a lot of it’s driven by the aircraft insurance companies.”
Aircraft operators also have fuel agreements at airports – like Kissimmee- that guarantee the price of aviation fuel if they land there. Lloyd says those agreements could also be jeopardized by the loss of the tower.
Other airport users say they’re concerned about safety. John Calla, vice president of operations for Italico Aviation– a company that plans to import and assemble light sport aircraft at Kissimmee — says he’s worried about the mix of traffic if there’s no tower. “You see the jets that take off here and the speed they operate,” says Calla. “You get a smaller aircraft that’s used to flying about 60 miles per hour, integrating with something of that size, and you could get some conflicts.
Calla says the tower is important to separate and sequence the arrival and departure of planes. “They know the speed of the aircraft and they know how much to sequence it so traffic flow is not impaired. It also improves the safety as well.”
Florida Congressman Alan Grayson has written to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and the FAA urging them to consider the impact of closing the tower.