OLIVE BRANCH — The Olive Branch Airport control tower, set to close as early as next month due to federal budget cuts, has been spared and will remain open at least through the current fiscal year, which ends in September.
“We did our part and now it’s round two,” Olive Branch Airport manager David Taylor said Monday, just as a brand new air service, Southern Airways, was set to unveiled to the public.
Taylor said hundreds of individuals sent cards, letters and emails to Federal Aviation Administration officials in Washington, D.C. expressing their concern about the possible control tower closure, one of 149 across the nation planned in the wake of federal budget cuts.
“We want to extend our heartfelt thanks to all those who wrote letters and sent letters to our congressmen,” Taylor said. “We’ve got to get back into the trenches and start slugging it out to make sure we are funded in 2014.”
The Obama administration announced Friday that it won’t close 149 contractor-run air traffic control towers nationwide.
Five cities, including Olive Branch, were set to be affected by the closures.
The Federal Aviation Administration, as part of $637 million in automatic federal budget cuts, had previously targeted Jackson’s Hawkins Field, Bay St. Louis’ Stennis International Airport, Greenville’s Mid-Delta Regional Airport, Olive Branch Airport and Tupelo Regional Airport each will shutter towers.
The closures would have applied to airports with fewer than 150,000 flight operations or fewer than 10,000 commercial operations per year.
The Federal Aviation Administration, which oversees air traffic services, was required to slash $253 million from its accounts this fiscal year. The announcement was a near-total reversal of the Transportation Department’s plans.
Two weeks ago, Taylor addressed DeSoto County Supervisors about the prospect that the tower at the Olive Branch Airport would likely close June 15 due to federal sequestration imposed by the U.S. Congress on federally subsidized operations nationwide.
The tower at the Olive Branch Airport, built at a cost of $1.2 million in 2005, could have shut down as early as next month had the FAA not granted an extension.
Olive Branch is one of Mississippi’s busiest airports with more than 230 daily operations, with two flight schools performing more than 20 flights an hour.
Taylor said it costs $40,000 a month or approximately a half million dollars a year to man and operate the 401-feet tall tower. Corporate jets and daily commuter traffic heavily rely on the airport, and some flights will likely be cancelled because pilots will not be able to fly in craft without a control tower for safety and insurance purposes, according to Taylor.
Five air traffic controllers would be unemployed if the tower were to close. Taylor said the tower could probably be staffed at $25,000 a month if the airport was forced to scale down its operations.
Southern Airways Express, a single-engine turbo prop aircraft which hold nine passengers announced its planned routes on Monday during a press conference at the airport.
Corporate jet traffic which includes CEO’s of major companies and celebrities alike including Oprah Winfrey, Chelsea Clinton and the Bush twin presidential daughters have all utilized the airport in Olive Branch, according to Taylor.
Fifty percent of the airport’s flights are due to training, with 35 percent making up the corporate jet traffic, and with five percent making up military traffic.