By Tina Alvey
LEWISBURG — With the Federal Aviation Administration planning to shutter the control tower at Greenbrier Valley Airport within the next few weeks, the airport’s governing board plans to convene an emergency meeting this evening to plot a strategy to deal with the situation.
The FAA decided to close 149 air-traffic control towers at the nation’s small and mid-sized airports in order to comply with $637 million in funding cuts that automatically went into effect when Congress failed to pass a budget before a March 1 deadline.
The FAA made a poor decision, according to Greenbrier Valley Airport manager Jerry O’Sullivan.
“This isn’t the first time they have tried to close our tower,” O’Sullivan said. “When they threatened us 15 years ago, I started a Civil Air Patrol unit to keep our cost/benefit ratio high enough to keep the tower open.
“But this time it’s different. This is a wholesale reduction in the number of air-traffic control towers, not just targeting us. This is a national issue; this needs to be handled by Congress.”
O’Sullivan maintains that closing the 149 contract towers compromises aviation safety.
“The network of towers forms a fine mosaic that fits together; if you start removing pieces from that mosaic, it’s not going to work the same,” O’Sullivan explains.
“Since the FAA was established in 1958, there has been steady progress made in increasing safety,” he says. “But this action represents a complete reversal in that progress. This is really stunning. The FAA has a lot of explaining to do.”
Ironically, a Feb. 22 letter to various aviation stakeholders which was signed by both U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood and FAA Administrator Michael Huerta assured, “Safety is our top priority.”
Detailing potential measures that could be taken to meet mandated funding cuts, LaHood and Huerta said in the letter, which is posted on the FAA’s website, “We are aware that these service reductions will adversely affect commercial, corporate and general aviation operators.”
O’Sullivan told The Register-Herald in a February interview anticipating the tower closure order that pilots would have to coordinate their own landings and takeoffs among themselves if the FAA followed through with its plans. He said the safety problem would potentially be “catastrophic” in the summer months, when Greenbrier Valley Airport sees upwards of 400 corporate and charter flights a day when nearby resorts host conventions and when the annual Greenbrier Classic golf tournament gets under way.
O’Sullivan is particularly incensed that the tower closure decisions were not based on the usual criteria the FAA employs when evaluating the need for services at various airports.
“Local economic impact was specifically excluded from the evaluation,” he says. “‘National relevance’ was the only standard they were interested in.”
In order to meet the precipitously increased volume standard, O’Sullivan says Greenbrier Valley would have to land 30 commercial flights a day, an insurmountable burden for an airport that currently averages only two daily Silver Airways commercial flights.
“They moved the goal-posts on us,” O’Sullivan proclaims.
Most of Greenbrier Valley’s traffic — some 30,000 flights annually — is composed of what is referred to as “general aviation” traffic, he explains. Those aircraft include corporate jets, charter crafts of various sizes and personal planes.
In addition to the general aviation planes, the Civil Air Patrol and military aircraft use the airport, according to O’Sullivan.
“This airport is heavily used as a training site for Air Force One; it touches down here at least once a month,” he says.
Greenbrier Valley is one of only 13 airports on the FAA’s closure list that averages at least one commercial airline arrival and departure per day.
When the Greenbrier County Airport Authority meets this evening, members will be looking for solutions to the tower problem.
According to a March 23 report on bloomberg.com written by Alan Levin, 16 towers run by private contractors — like Greenbrier Valley’s tower is — will remain open through Sept. 30 because their airports pay a portion of their operating costs. According to the Bloomberg report, FAA rules allow other airports to also use that option to keep their towers open.
Currently operated under a contract with the FAA by Midwest ATC, a Kansas company, Greenbrier Valley’s tower costs around $600,000 a year to run. That figure includes such items as personnel, maintenance and insurance.
The FAA owns the tower building where four air traffic controllers work.
“The cost is extremely high,” O’Sullivan acknowledges. “As far as the airport self-funding the tower’s operation — that is questionable beyond a certain point. It’s up to the authority to decide, but this airport is not running a surplus of half-a-million dollars.”
The annual operating budget for the county-owned airport is around $3 million, O’Sullivan says, adding that the facility is supported by its own revenue, with no subsidy from the county.
“We’re very proud we don’t take tax money,” he says.
The airport has posted a profit 41 out of its 42 years in operation, according to O’Sullivan.