March 22, 2013

Johnson County airports on list for tower closure

New Century and Executive airports could be affected by the federal budget sequester.

Two airports in Johnson County that together average about 110,000 flight operations a year would have to do without control towers if efforts to resolve the federal budget sequester are not successful.

New Century AirCenter and Johnson County Executive Airport are among 149 airports nationwide that would lose tower operations in a four-week phase-out beginning April 7, the Federal Aviation Administration announced Friday.

Lee Metcalfe, executive director of the Johnson County Airport Commission, said Friday that pilots are trained in procedures for landing at and taking off from uncontrolled airports. They now use those procedures at the Johnson County airports during hours when the towers are not in operation, after 10 p.m. and before 7 a.m.

Without a control tower, pilots are left to coordinate takeoffs and landings among themselves over a shared radio frequency.

“My biggest concern is that the pilots who use our airports on a regular basis and don’t typically fly into uncontrolled airports, their discipline (to use those procedures) is not going to be there and so safety, to some extent, will be compromised,” Metcalfe said.

Other airports in Kansas slated to lose tower operations are Philip Billard Municipal Airport in Topeka, Hutchinson Municipal and Manhattan Regional. The airports in Branson and Columbia in Missouri would also lose tower operations, as would St. Louis Regional Airport in East Alton, Ill.

Affected airports have the option of contracting with FAA-licensed controllers to keep their towers open. But Metcalfe said that would cost $1.2 million a year in Johnson County and could not be afforded with the commission’s budget of about $5 million.

The FAA is being forced to trim $637 million from its budget for the rest of the fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30. That is part of the across-the-board spending cuts known as sequestration, which went into effect March 1 and are part of the larger spending and taxation policy struggle between the Democratic Obama Administration and Republicans in Congress.

Republican Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas on Friday blamed the administration, saying its “decision to shutter these air traffic control towers is short-sighted and dangerous.”

The FAA said that the closure list reflected “very tough decisions” but that the agency had no choice given the sequestration.

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

Metcalfe said his commission had not received any details about that.

“I still believe somebody is going to step in and stop this stupidity,” Metcalfe said of the sequester debate. “This is all political theater, and it is very disruptive for a lot of people.”

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