By Michael Pollick
Airport leaders in Punta Gorda, Naples and other cities facing the loss of air traffic control service are threatening to sue to keep the government from shuttering towers beginning early next month.
On Tuesday, the Punta Gorda Airport Authority board approved plans to join airports nationwide that are planning federal litigation, said Gary Quill, the airport’s executive director.
The City of Naples Airport Authority also said it has “initiated legal action” to try and stop the Federal Aviation Administration from following through on a plan to shutter 149 contract traffic towers nationwide.
“In this case, the agency ignored safety and failed even to look at the question of what the safety implications would be of closing a massive number of towers around the country,” said Peter Kirsch, an attorney representing Punta Gorda, Naples and other airports in the pending litigation.
Kirsch and others said a lawsuit against the FAA, stemming from $85 billion in mandated “sequestration” budget cuts, could be filed as early as Friday.
Some of the 149 air traffic control towers set to be closed nationwide are scheduled to go dark on April 7.
Punta Gorda Airport’s tower, which ensures the safety of commercial flights by Allegiant Air as well as flights by private pilots, is slated to close April 21.
Allegiant has said it will likely continue flying past that date, however, because its pilots are trained to land and take off without the assistance of a tower.
Punta Gorda averages 140 flights monthly during tower hours, though Allegiant also has flights before and after tower hours.
The lawsuit is expected to allege that the FAA’s plan to close towers is “arbitrary and capricious and in violation of the agency’s basic mandate to look first at safety before making any other decisions.”
The FAA, which declined to comment on the pending lawsuit, estimated it would save $33 million in the current fiscal year by eliminating service to the towers.
“It appears that there are going to be several airports in Florida that are going to be involved,” Bill Johnson, executive director of the Florida Airport Council, said of the pending litigation.
His group held a conference call with Florida airports on Monday during which the lawsuit was discussed.
Allegiant Air, which began service to Punta Gorda Airport in anticipation of its $4 million tower’s opening in February 2012, now serves 11 cities from the airport.
“During the height of the season, some of the cities go up to four times a week,” said Quill.
Naples Municipal Airport handles 87,000 charter and other flights a year, said spokeswoman Laurel Smith.
“It is a very busy airport, one square mile surrounded by city,” Smith said.
About 100 of the airports to be affected — including Punta Gorda — are run by Robinson Aviation Inc. of Oklahoma City, Okla.
“We are scrambling very hard to keep people employed,” Robinson Aviation president Charlie Dove said.
The company employs more than 500 controllers, mostly former or retired military or FAA personnel.
“I think many of the airports facing closure are working with their local boards and airport authorities to see if they could possibly fund it as a non-fed tower,” Dove said.
RVA’s contracted control tower operations typically cost $450,000 to $600,000 per year, Dove said.
One such airport is Northeast Florida Regional, in St. Augustine.
In a 3-2 vote, the airport board there decided to spent about $50,000 out of reserves to extend the operation of its tower at least a month after the FAA funding runs out, according to published reports.
The Florida towers scheduled to lose FAA funding are:
April 7: New Smyrna Beach, North Perry, Leesburg, Ormond Beach and Titusville;
April 21: Page Tower in Fort Myers, Lakeland, Ocala, Punta Gorda and Whitted in St. Petersburg;
May 5: Naples, Boca Raton, St. Augustine and Stuart.
“In this case, the agency ignored safety and failed even to look at the question of what the safety implications would be of closing a massive number of towers around the country.”
– Peter Kirsch, an attorney representing the airports