By Jenna Pizzi
Michael Mancuso/The Times EWING — Mercer County Freeholders have been getting an earful from people in the community concerned about flying at Trenton-Mercer Airport without a manned air traffic control tower.
Freeholder Samuel Frisby said he got a call from some concerned area residents who were already in Florida and had flown Frontier Airlines from Mercer. They were worried about the flight back home to the small Ewing airport, where the control tower is slated to close early in April.
“They said, ‘If I had known that, would I have even come down here?’” Frisby said.
Freeholder Anthony Carabelli said he had been hearing concerns from people ever since the Federal Aviation Administration announced on Friday due to deep budget cuts it would could no longer support tower service at Mercer.
He said the residents were concerned that there would be an impact on passenger safety and that the positive economic effect the airport is having on the surrounding community would be undermined.
County officials have said that the airport will continue to operate once the tower closes and County Executive Brian Hughes has tried to assure passengers that they will be safe.
Board Chairman John Cimino, who believes the airport can operate safely without a manned tower, said no matter what assurances have been given there are still members of the public who are scared.
“How do we get to a level of comfort with people that it is safe,” Cimino said.
In a letter sent to Gov. Chris Christie yesterday, Hughes acknowledged that there are safety concerns — such as regulating the spacing of the aircraft at takeoff and landing — that make it important to keep a control tower operational at the airport.
“I cannot emphasize strongly enough the danger that exists from unexpected weather conditions, or wildlife strikes of aircraft and how often local air traffic controllers mitigate these dangers,” Hughes wrote.
He went on to highlight the work that the controllers do to contact emergency response if a pilot is in need of assistance and provide navigational aid to pilots.
The tower at Trenton-Mercer Airport was one of 149 towers slated to close nationally due to cuts to the FAA budget and federal budgets across the board, called the sequester.
During their meeting last night, the freeholders also expressed concern that if passengers are concerned about safety and chose not to fly from Trenton-Mercer the local economy will suffer. Since Frontier Airlines began flying from the airport in November the surrounding area has seen a boost of activity, Frisby has said.
“We know that there is an economic impact happening,” Frisby said. “It could be problematic.”
Frisby said he would like to see the county administration consider what it would cost to take over the contract for the tower — at least for a few months — to keep it manned.
Hughes said last week preliminary estimates show that it could cost $60,000 a month to keep the tower operating as it is currently.
“I don’t know if that is a bad price tag for a month or two to support the economy,” Frisby said.
The board members will write their own letter to Christie this week, supporting the concerns expressed by Hughes in his letter. The freeholders said they would also send the letter to the state’s congressional delegation with the hope of ensuring funding for the tower as quickly as possible.