HARTFORD — State and federal officials, joined Monday by officials from Tweed New Haven Regional Airport and several others that would have been affected by control tower cuts, hailed the FAA’s decision to keep towers open, but called for changes to ensure the same thing doesn’t happen in a few months.
“We have avoided the intolerable effects on jobs, commerce and airline safety that would have resulted” from the cuts, but “we’re not here to do a victory lap,” U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. said at a press conference preceding a state General Assembly committee hearing on the issue.
“We’re here to say this fight continues,” said Blumenthal, one of two senators who led the fight in Washington against the sequester-related cuts, working across party lines with U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas.
“We need to put this system on a sustainable path,” Blumenthal, joined by U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3, and a dozen or so officials from Tweed and other airports, said later during the legislative Transportation Committee’s hearing. “The federal government should not be lurching from crisis to crisis.”
DeLauro said that some kind of comprehensive fix is needed.
“Today’s hearing” is “critically important, because we are not out of the woods…” she said. “We all know it’s a good step forward, but we only have until Sept. 30” when the federal fiscal year ends.
Airport officials spoke both during the press conference and the informational hearing the followed.
Losing the tower at Tweed “would be another stumbling block for us” in efforts to develop Tweed, said Eugene Harris, treasurer of the Tweed New Haven Airport Authority.
He attended the hearing along with airport manager Lori Hoffman-Soares, Tom Reich, director of air service for Avports, which runs the airport for the authority, and Ginny Kozlowski, executive director of the Greater New Haven Convention & Visitors Bureau.
“This issue is so important to us, because over the last 15 years we’ve made monumental improvements” at Tweed, Harris said.
Tweed is city-owned but in addition to its $350,000 city subsidy received $1.5 million annually from the state, a figure Gov. Dannel Malloy’s budget proposed to cut to $1.3 million. Airport officials have said they actually need $1.8 million from the state to be on firm footing.
Tweed would have been the only airport with commercial service in New England to face tower closure had the FAA not retreated from the cuts, said Hoffman-Soares.
Besides guiding and organizing the routes of planes, controllers take weather measurements, monitor navigational aids and do many other tasks, she said.
The FAA announced Friday that it will fund operation of so-called “contract towers” operated by private companies under contract to the FAA through the end of the fiscal year, after previously announcing plans to close them by June 15.
Besides Tweed, the cuts would have shuttered towers at Hartford-Brainard, Groton-New London, Danbury Municipal, Waterbury-Oxford and Bridgeport’s Sikorsky Memorial Airport in Stratford.
All but Sikorsky were represented at the hearing on Monday.
Transportation Committee Co-Chairman Sen. Andrew Maynard, D-Stonington, said, “We were delighted to get the news on Friday that the funding will be in place for our … towers through the end of the federal fiscal year.”
But he, along with members of the committee, seemed willing to listen to suggestions from some of the airport and tower officials present that the state consider taking over funding of the towers’ operations.
Airport administrators, control tower managers and flight school instructors gave legislators an earful on the importance of keeping the towers open.
Kevin Dillon, executive director of the Connecticut Airport Authority, pointed out that closure would have shuttered 25 percent of the towers nationwide “almost overnight” without “a standard safety management system review.”
In the case of Tweed, which is trying to maintain and expand commercial air service, and Groton-New London, which is trying to review the service it once had, closing the towers makes that even harder, he said.
“While I’m not going to say it’s impossible, it is unlikely” for an airport without a control tower to establish new commerce service, Dillon said.
Terry Keller, chief instructor at Premier Flight Center at Brainard, was one of several speakers who said that while it is possible to operate without air traffic controllers, they are kind of like traffic lights, keeping traffic organized when thing get complex.
“We don’t allow people to drive at highway speeds through the center of town,” Keller said.
By cutting controllers, “we don’t make the airport inherently unsafe, but we do elevate the risk,” he said.
Were controllers to be cut, “the first problem that you would have” would be “you lose a lot of the separation of space,” said Chet Moore, tower manager at Groton-New London.
“When you have people who sometimes break the rules, there’s no one to square them away,” and “when you start mixing large and small aircraft, you have a potential for some serious problems.”
Sooner or later, “the pilots will stop flying to the smaller airports because the pilots, especially of the corporate jets, are afraid of what might happen,” Moore said during the press conference.