Tower troubles

K.I. SAWYER – Management officials at Sawyer International Airport were hoping to hear more details soon about Friday’s Federal Aviation Administration closure of 149 federal contract air traffic control towers, including the tower at Sawyer, which is expected to affect five workers.

Sawyer Airport Manager Duane DuRay had not received official confirmation of the closure Friday afternoon and said many details about the closures remained unknown. Sawyer officials expected to release more information Monday about what they have learned.

DuRay confirmed Sawyer’s tower was on a list of closures posted by the FAA on its website Friday afternoon. Two other towers in downstate Michigan – W.K. Kellogg in Battle Creek and Coleman A. Young in Detroit – were also on the closure list. Those shutdowns are due to begin April 7 under a four-week phased closure plan.

“It’s unfortunate, it’s very unfortunate,” DuRay said. “We definitely did a lot of work to try to save it.”

U.S. Rep. Dan Benishek, R-Crystal Falls, said he plans to meet with Sawyer management officials Tuesday.

“I am deeply disappointed the (Obama) administration and the FAA chose to close down the control tower at Sawyer. These guys in Washington waste millions of our dollars every day on useless things, yet the White House chooses to cut our airport towers. It’s very frustrating,” Benishek said. “I fought to keep this tower open and supported two different bills last year that would’ve avoided this whole mess, but the Senate and president never acted on them. I will continue monitoring the closure and I’m looking forward to visiting the airport next week to further discuss this situation with airport officials.”

In early March, the FAA proposed closing 189 contract air traffic control towers as part of its plan to meet the nearly $637 million in cuts required under budget sequestration and announced that it would consider keeping open any of these towers if doing so would be in the national interest.

Of those initial closure proposals, 24 are being kept open for national interest reasons. Another 16 towers under a “cost share” program will remain open because Congressional statute sets aside funds each year for those towers. The cost-share funds are subject to sequestration cuts, but the required 5 percent will not result in tower closures, the FAA said.

Airports had until March 13 to argue for keeping their towers open. A final list of closures was to be released last Monday, but was postponed until Friday.

“They delayed it because there was so many letters that came in,” DuRay said.

Sawyer officials and others sent letters to lawmakers and other officials. Earlier in the week, area residents were also calling Senate leaders.

“We heard from communities across the country about the importance of their towers and these were very tough decisions,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in an FAA press release. “Unfortunately, we are faced with a series of difficult choices that we have to make to reach the required cuts under sequestration.”

In addition to reviewing materials submitted on behalf of towers, the U.S. Department of Transportation consulted with the Department of Defense and Department of Homeland Security and conducted operational assessments of each potential tower closure on the national air transportation system.

FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said the agency will work with airports and operators to ensure procedures are in place “to maintain the high level of safety at non-towered airports.”

DuRay said previously lawmakers had told county officials the airport tower closures are expected to be permanent. 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.

DuRay said closing the Sawyer air traffic control tower would adversely affect the marketability of the airport in the future.

John Pepin can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 206. His email address is