BY KELLY McLENDON
Local aviation experts said safety is the top concern if air traffic control tower services are discontinued overnight at Toledo Express Airport.
About a dozen people gathered Thursday at the Grand Aire Charter at the airport to collaborate on ideas for a letter-writing campaign to express their feelings about the potential nightly closure between midnight and 6 a.m.
Micah Maziar, president of the local National Air Traffic Controllers Association union, said the potential budget cuts from the Federal Aviation Administration, because of sequestration, could compromise safety on multiple levels.
“It’s a slippery slope if they close,” he said.
The FAA last week listed 149 airports in three dozen states for which it intends to eliminate tower operations provided by contractors. The targeted towers all have fewer than 150,000 takeoffs and landings or 10,000 commercial flights a year.
The FAA is studying the potential for closures at dozens of others, including Toledo Express, that are operated by federal employees.
Sequestration’s across-the-board cuts of $85 billion started at the beginning of the month. The FAA is to absorb $637 million in cuts by Sept. 30.
During closure hours, the Cleveland Air Route Traffic Control Center would take over, but it does not provide assistance at all flight altitudes, according to a letter provided at the meeting from the local union.
For example, Mr. Maziar said, if two medical helicopters are flying lower than normal, they will not be able to detect each other, and will have to communicate with each other directly instead of through the tower.
“It slows the operation down. We’re just gonna hope that nobody gets hurt in the process,” Mr. Maziar said.
He said weather reporting also would be affected by closing the tower at night.
“It wouldn’t be the most up-to-date information,” he said.
The air traffic control staff has 30 employees and if the night shift is canceled, it would mean two fewer working shifts per week.
To help cut costs, Mr. Maziar said each employee will have one furlough day per pay period, starting in April.
Union rules require that the association was notified by certified mail, 30 days prior to the first furlough day.
While he said the negotiations have been “very collaborative,” he said the furloughs could cause problems if equipment fails.
If an employee is out on a furlough day, equipment might not be fixed until that particular employee with specific knowledge returns.
But Mr. Maziar isn’t ready to give up.
He has encouraged the businesses that operate at the airport to write to the FAA, declaring a need to keep the air traffic control center open late.
The FAA is conducting a study to evaluate ‘traffic densities, hours of operation, staffing levels, equipment requirements …,” a union letter stated. The study, expected to be concluded by mid-April, will determine whether the tower at Toledo Express will close.
He was hopeful that the letter-writing campaign would make an impact.
“If it doesn’t, we have to prepare. We need the users to make your voice heard,” he said.
Ryan Moore, chairman of the Northwest Ohio Aviation Council who attended the two-hour meeting, said the potential closure could affect competition of airport services, especially for attracting clients who want to fly in people or cargo during overnight hours.
Andy Lorenz, a representative from the office of U.S. Rep. Bob Latta (R., Bowling Green), said he spoke with Mr. Latta on Thursday about the situation and that the office is “looking at ways that we can assist.”
“I got 13 reasons why [the control center should be kept open overnight] and most of them are safety related,” Mr. Moore said.