Joco Opinion

As I See It — In face of tower closures, county’s airports need better advocates

Updated: 2013-05-15T04:04:21Z

By DAVID COOPER

Special to The Star

I was deeply disappointed to learn of Lee Metcalfe’s ho-hum attitude toward the threatened closure of the control towers at Johnson County Executive Airport in Olathe and New Century AirCenter near Gardner, as reflected in Steve Rose’s March 30 column, “Political Bluster Targets Air Controllers.”

Those closures — part of President Barack Obama’s sequestration agenda for the FAA — are “not as big a deal as some are portraying it,” according to Mr. Metcalfe, executive director of the Johnson County Airport Commission. In the several weeks following that comment, both Mr. Metcalfe and the airport commission have maintained a frustrating silence about the president’s misguided plan.

Fortunately, the closures were delayed recently when Congress — in rare, bipartisan fashion — voted overwhelmingly to restore funding for the part of the president’s plan that forced the furlough of FAA controllers and caused significant delays at some airports. That bill also afforded the FAA flexibility to keep the contract towers open through Sept. 30, the end of the federal fiscal year.

However, the bill does not expressly forestall the president’s efforts to close 149 “contract towers” like Johnson County Executive and New Century, so it is apparent that a case still needs to be made for keeping the contract towers open beyond Sept. 30. It also is apparent we cannot rely on Mr. Metcalfe or the Airport Commission to make that case, even though it is easy to do.

Contrary to what the March 30 editorial suggests, the Johnson County airports are substantially different from non-towered airports such as Lee’s Summit Municipal and Midwest National in Clay County. Both Lee’s Summit and Midwest National operate in relative isolation, where the nearest major airports are more than 15 to 20 miles away.

On the other hand, the Johnson County airports are only 8 miles apart, so close that their FAA-designated air spaces overlap. Three miles to the west of New Century is busy little Gardner Municipal, which takes yet another bite out of New Century’s airspace. Each of these closely spaced airports operates on different radio frequencies, further adding to the challenge of safely operating in the airspace without the assistance of control towers. While it is true that pilots are taught procedures for safe operation at non-towered airports, at some point airspace becomes so busy that a control tower is needed.

This was never more apparent to me than recently when my wife and I flew a round-trip flight from New Century that involved a close encounter after takeoff with a plane approaching (non-towered) Gardner airport; a go-around on landing because of an airplane stopped unexpectedly on the runway, and a 20-minute wait to cross the runway on our taxi back to the hangar while the air traffic controller skillfully sequenced several aircraft landing on intersecting runways and seven planes waiting to take off. I regret that the president and Mr. Metcalfe were not with us to witness the controller’s important contributions to safety under these busy and congested conditions.

Despite these readily apparent considerations, our Johnson County officials have been cruising on autopilot for the past couple of months while at least 87 other regional airport authorities and cities — like Manhattan, Salina, Garden City and Jefferson City — have filed carefully reasoned position statements opposing the president’s unilateral and ill-conceived plan to close the contract towers without soliciting any input from the public, especially from the pilots most likely to be affected.

Given the obvious safety implications of rashly closing the contract towers, we deserve far better leadership from our president, and we deserve much better advocacy from Mr. Metcalfe and the Airport Commission.

David Cooper is a pilot and an aircraft owner based at New Century. He lives in Leawood.

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