Members of the state congressional delegation have asked the Federal Aviation Administration to keep six air traffic control towers open that have previously been identified for closure because of federal budget constraints.
Although there is not an impending plan to close the towers, which include Worcester, in letters to the FAA and to the House and Senate Appropriations Committees the state delegation asks that a permanent budget fix be implemented to ensure that the towers remain open.
“The FAA’s contract tower program is critical to enhancing aviation safety and cost savings at our nation’s smaller airports,” members of the delegation wrote in the letter to the FAA. “The potential closure of these facilities will have negative economic impacts on surrounding airport communities,” they added.
Due to the sequester funding cuts, six air traffic control towers in Massachusetts were scheduled to be closed in April. In addition to Worcester, the towers included Beverly, Lawrence, New Bedford, Norwood and Westfield-Barnes. The towers were kept open after a last-minute temporary spending solution was approved.
According to a March Associated Press story, the closures would not have forced the shutdown of any of those airports, but pilots will be left to coordinate takeoffs and landings among themselves over a shared radio frequency with no help from ground controllers under procedures that all pilots are trained to carry out.
In the letters sent Nov. 22, the Massachusetts congressional delegation, led by Sen. Edward J. Markey, a member of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee; and Congressman Stephen F. Lynch, ask that a permanent funding source be established to keep the towers open and safe from a closure list.
“The towers permit safe arrivals and departures, prevent mid-air collisions, and maintain the safety and efficiency of our national airspace system through essential flight training programs,” wrote the delegation. “These airports also have a significant direct economic impact on smaller cities and rural areas. Combined, the six named towers in Massachusetts manage hundreds of thousands of operations annually.”
“While we understand that the FAA’s budget is facing fiscal constraints …, we continue to feel strongly that safety, security and economic well-being should not be jeopardized,” the senators and congressmen wrote.
Brian Barnes, airport manager at Westfield-Barnes Regional Airport in Westfield, said he is confident — but not certain — that Westfield will keep its control-tower staff, or at least most of it. That’s because Barnes is also home to Barnes Air National Guard Base and the 104th Fighter Wing of the Massachusetts Air National Guard. The unit is charged with 24-hour-a-day air security for the Northeastern United States. The mission requires air traffic controllers, he said.
“Someone is going to have to pick up the expense of that staff, whether it is the FAA or the military,” Barnes said.
Cutbacks are possible. Right now the tower at Barnes is staffed from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. seven days a week. The FAA has hired, through a contractor, a total of five full-time controllers working in rotating shifts of one to two at a time.
“We might lose some of those people,” Barnes said. “We might lose some of those hours.”