Battle being waged to save Sawyer tower
K.I. SAWYER – Some Michigan airports that could be forced to shutter their air traffic control towers or sacrifice midnight shifts – including Sawyer International Airport – are pressing their cases with federal transportation officials to preserve those services.
“We are fighting for our tower,” Duane DuRay, Sawyer International Airport manager, said today. “We are very supportive of the tower. We don’t want to lose the tower. It’s an asset to the airport. It adds a layer of safety that everyone appreciates that uses the airport.”
Six air traffic control towers in the state are among 238 that could close nationwide, and two other airports could eliminate overnight shifts in early April as the Federal Aviation Administration prepares to shut off funding for those services.
The shutdowns are the result of the FAA’s move to reduce spending by $600 million under automatic federal budget cuts. The FAA cuts affect mostly small- and medium-size airports, though officials predict flights to major cities could have delays.
DuRay said the FAA has proposed closing 189 of 251 contract towers, including Sawyer. DuRay said lawmakers have told him the closures would be permanent. The Sawyer tower has five staff members.
He said the contract towers program has cut costs and improved safety and operates at significantly lower cost than FAA towers.
“This is a program that’s extremely successful,” DuRay said.
Officials at some of the airports targeted for tower closings said they expect the airports to remain open but raised concerns about safety and efficiency. The FAA said it will consider keeping some towers open on a case-by-case basis if local authorities can prove its tower closure would “adversely affect the national interest.”
DuRay said Sawyer will make its case as best it can to lawmakers and the FAA. He said based on the national interest criteria, it is difficult for some of the smaller individual airports to substantiate that claim.
“Collectively, all of the towers will impact all of those (criteria) areas,” DuRay said.
DuRay said closing the Sawyer tower would adversely affect the future marketability of the airport.
The FAA this past week held a telephone conference call with trade associations representing airports and airport executives. They were told they have until Wednesday to send comments to the agency making their case as to why a particular tower should stay open or airport should stay open overnight and officials will make a decision on a final list by March 18. DuRay said letters were being drafted to legislators and the FAA about the Sawyer tower.
Michigan airports on the air traffic control closure list are Ann Arbor, W.K. Kellogg in Battle Creek, Coleman A. Young in Detroit, Jackson County-Reynolds Field in Jackson, Muskegon County in Muskegon and Sawyer International in Marquette County’s Sands Township. The towers at the Lansing and Willow Run airports are on the list of 72 nationwide that could close overnight through the elimination of midnight shifts for air traffic controllers.
Furloughs of air traffic controllers won’t kick in until April because the FAA is required by law to give its employees advance notice. Officials have warned that the busiest airports could be forced to close some of their runways, causing widespread flight delays and cancellations.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood predicts flights to cities such as New York, Chicago and San Francisco could have delays of up to 90 minutes during peak hours because fewer controllers will be on duty.
“Muskegon County Airport will remain open if the (changes go) into effect,” said Bob Lukens, community development director for the western Michigan county along Lake Michigan that operates the facility. “We have twice daily flights to Chicago O’Hare on United Express, and those will still be happening, provided they can get out of O’Hare.”
Lukens said pilots will have to communicate with each other instead of relying on the airport tower to direct traffic. While it’s preferable to have controllers in the tower, he said “the pilots are used to this – they talk to each other.”
Still, he said the county remains concerned. He wonders, for example, what effect the potential closure will have on the U.S. Coast Guard, which operates an air station out of the airport in the summer.
“One of the criteria is that the FAA is unable to consider local community impacts – it has to be more of a national interest and impact,” he said. “We do have a number of comments that we will make but I don’t know if those will be considered.”
Jason Watt, general manager for Detroit’s Coleman A. Young airport, said the facility also intends to stay open and control traffic with help from the tower at Detroit Metropolitan Airport more than 20 miles to the southwest. But the much smaller city airport will lobby to keep its facility.
“Our tower is essential to operations at the airport,” he told The Associated Press in a statement. “It could pose a significant risk to air safety for our tower to be uncontrolled. An uncontrolled tower would also be a security risk, relative to Homeland Security issues.”
W.K. Kellogg’s operators contend they have a compelling national case to keep their tower open and they are assembling comments from a tenant base that includes Western Michigan University’s College of Aviation, the Battle Creek Air National Guard, and Duncan Aviation, which it says is the largest privately owned aircraft remanufacturing firm in North America.
“We will not be able to operate at the capacity we operate today – our tenants will have to reduce the amount of flying they do,” said Larry Bowron, Battle Creek’s transportation director and president of the Michigan Association of Airport Executives.
“My tenants are all for reducing spending. However, it needs to be done in a logical, thoughtful, intellectual way.”
Bowron is concerned by assurances that “airplanes can still come and go” without air traffic controllers in towers. He compares it to parking lot attendants for large events, who direct and divert traffic to ease congestion.
“They do that because it’s the most efficient and safest way to get people into the parking lot,” he said. “Our controllers … handle 55 to 60 aircraft an hour sometimes. We can’t have that – seeing and being seen without air traffic controllers.”