Cities, states fight to keep towers open

March 27, 2013

Across the country, the imminent closing of contract control towers was eliciting a variety of responses from region to region.

Texas announced that its Transportation Commission would hold an emergency meeting to provide authority for state funding of 13 control towers at regional airports—including one, San Marcos, that began operation as a contract control tower in 2011. 

In South Carolina, Beaufort County officials expressed relief that the closing of the control tower at Hilton Head Island Airport, set for May 5, would not happen until after the Heritage Tournament, a professional golf tournament that is held there in mid-April.

Also, lawyers for Spokane, Wash.’s Felts Field have presented the FAA with an emergency request to delay the April 7 shutdown of the airport’s contract control tower to provide time for a U.S. Court of Appeals review of the sequester-driven closure order.

Felts Field’s control tower is one of 149 towers in the Contract Tower Program scheduled for shutdown, and is among 24 facilities scheduled to close in the first of three phases of closings through May 5. AOPA President Craig Fuller has warned FAA Administrator Michael Huerta that the “cuts will have unacceptable consequences for the nation and the flying community.”

Spokane Airports, operator of Felts Field, argues that prior to closing control towers, the FAA must “act in the public interest and assign, maintain and enhance safety as the highest priorities in air commerce decisions such as the contract tower program.” That means the FAA must conduct a safety management systems review to assure that closure does not violate the airport’s SMS. The agency also must prepare an environmental impact statement on the proposed “major federal action,” and must take other preparatory steps, the airport’s lawyers said in a March 22 letter to Huerta.

FAA dismissed arguments

Spokane Airports was previously rebuffed by the FAA when seeking exclusion from the planned tower shutdowns. In comments submitted to the FAA on March 13, Spokane contended that the shutdown was “contrary to law” absent the preliminary actions it says must be taken.

The FAA dismissed Spokane’s arguments on March 22, when it notified the airport board of the April 7 shutdown date. Airports in the Spokane system are jointly owned by Spokane County and the city of Spokane.

Responding that day with a hand-delivered request for an emergency stay of tower closings, Washington D.C. law firm Spiegel & McDiarmid countered that the sequestration mandate to cut agency spending does not excuse failure to delay closings during a safety review.

“As a matter of public interest, the FAA must stay its decision and satisfy the foregoing obligations prior to making any final closure decision with respect to Felts Field and the other affected contract towers,” wrote Pablo O. Nuesch, counsel to the Spokane Airport Board.

“We can’t comment on pending litigation,” an FAA spokesperson said in an email to AOPA in response to an inquiry about Spokane’s request.

The FAA sent airports scheduled for tower shutdowns a guidance document on closure that gives airport operators “a choice” about the aftermath. “The airport operator may choose to operate as a non-towered airport. The airport operator may also choose to continue providing tower services as a non-Federal control tower. The decision made by the airport operator will most likely affect what happens with the existing tower structure and the equipment inside,” it said.

“The FAA is prepared to discuss the continued use of buildings and equipment with airports for those who desire to continue providing tower services. The FAA will also discuss the availability of reimbursable agreements where the airport can reimburse the FAA to provide other services (e.g., maintenance, logistics support, etc.),” the document said.

The Texas Department of Transportation issued a news release March 27 to announce its actions to keep some control towers up and running.

“Safety is the primary reason we felt a need to take immediate action for the flying public and business aircraft that use these airports, “said Texas Transportation Commissioner Fred Underwood. “I am proud of our leaders for taking this extraordinary measure to ensure that those relying on these municipal airports will be able to depart and arrive safely and efficiently.”

Airports that could be funded include New Braunfels Regional, Brownsville /South Padre Island International Airport, Easterwood Field, TSTC Waco, Lone Star Executive Airport in Houston, Georgetown Municipal Airport, San Marcos Municipal Airport, Dallas Executive Airport, Sugarland Regional Airport, Stinson Municipal Airport in San Antonio, Collin County Regional Airport, Tyler Pounds Regional Airport, and Victoria Regional Airport.

On Sept. 1, 2011, air traffic services contractor Robinson Aviation had welcomed closure-targeted San Marcos Municipal “into the RVA family of air traffic control towers.”

Spokane Airports CEO Lawrence J. Krauter expressed disappointment that the FAA “inadequately considered” Felts Field’s objections to the tower closing while implementing “a hastily convened process that contravenes the systematic way that decisions impacting air safety have been historically and consistently handled.”

As a result, the airport’s board authorized pursuing “all available remedies” to keep the Felts Field control tower operating, he said in a news release.

Spokane may be joined in its effort by Middle Georgia Regional Airport. The Macon-area airport requested a 30-day delay in the closing of its contract control tower while it studies alternatives to closing, including joining Spokane’s legal challenge, said a local news report.

Cuyahoga County, Ohio, was also rebuffed by the FAA in an appeal to keep the county airport’s control tower operating after a scheduled May 5 closing date, said a news report.