By Becky Orr
CHEYENNE — The air traffic control tower at Cheyenne Regional Airport will continue to be staffed – at least for now.
Last Friday, the Federal Aviation Administration released a final list of 149 contract air traffic control towers across the country that it will shut down.
Cheyenne Regional Airport’s tower is not on the final list. It was on an original list that proposed the closure of 238 towers, however.
The closures are a result of forced federal spending cuts called sequestration. The FAA must cut $637 million for the rest of the fiscal year that ends Sept. 30, according to an Associated Press article.
The FAA will start closing towers next month at these mostly smaller airports. The agency’s decision has raised questions among people nationwide who wonder how safe airports will be without air traffic control towers.
Cheyenne Regional Airport Manager Dave Haring said he is glad the tower here will stay open. The FAA’s list guarantees the tower will remain open at least through the end of the fiscal year.
A local military connection with the airport likely helped prevent the tower’s closure, he said.
At Cheyenne Regional Airport, 12 of its 20 air traffic controllers are from the Wyoming Air National Guard.
All air traffic controllers are trained and certified. They can practice and improve their skills through their work at the tower.
Cheyenne Regional Airport’s tower is part of a federal contract tower program. The local program is much less expensive than other programs that use private contractors instead of military air traffic controllers, Haring said.
In a letter he sent to the FAA asking it to keep the Cheyenne tower open, Haring wrote that Cheyenne Regional Airport is a diversion facility for Denver International Airport.
“A functioning air traffic control tower is critical in being able to serve in that role,” he wrote.
Barry Dishman, air traffic manager in charge of the Cheyenne tower’s radar and air traffic services, said he is very pleased Cheyenne is not on the list of closures.
The tower at the airport makes it possible for the Wyoming Air National Guard’s air traffic controllers to meet their mission and be ready to deploy to a war zone or to help out at national disasters, he said.
The Cheyenne Regional Airport board owns and operates the tower. The FAA owns and maintains the equipment inside, and the Wyoming Air National Guard provides air traffic control services, Dishman said
The Guard also brought a mobile radar service to the airport. This extra service typically is not provided at a contract tower, he said.
Air traffic controllers at Cheyenne Regional Airport handle more than 50,000 aviation operations a year, Dishman said. They provide 30,000 radar operations, bringing the total to 80,000 operations a year.
Dishman and Haring do not expect a sharp increase in air traffic at Cheyenne’s airport because other towers will closed.
A tower has responsibility for air space that covers a perimeter of five miles from an airport.
“Having a tower is very important,” said Dale Steenbergen, president and chief executive officer of the Greater Cheyenne Chamber of Commerce.
The tower and its air traffic controllers provide safety and can attract commercial aviation too, he added.
The area’s aviation community breathed a collective sigh of relief when it learned that the tower will stay open.
But J. Spencer Dickerson, executive director of the U.S. Contract Tower Association, urges caution.
He predicts the Cheyenne airport eventually will lose its tower during what could be a long sequestration process.
The FAA and the U.S. Department of Transportation cut 60 percent of FAA’s contract tower program in the new budget, Dickerson said.
But other areas of the FAA budget were cut by only 5 percent, he said.