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FAA to eliminate funds for air traffic control towers at five Kansas airports

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Wednesday, March 27, 2013, at 5:14 p.m.

Funding for 149 of the nation’s contract air traffic control towers, including five in Kansas, will cease in three phases, the Federal Aviation Administration said.

The agency also noted that airports could decide to operate towers as nonfederal air traffic facilities.

The FAA released information on Tuesday about what will happen to the towers and equipment, personnel and the operations at airports scheduled for funding to cease. The loss of funding is being made to meet the budget cuts agreed to by Congress and the Obama administration as part of a spending deal first struck in 2011.

The FAA will cease funding for control towers at small airports with lighter traffic as it trims $537 million from its budget for the rest of the fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.

Johnson County Executive Airport will see funding cease for its tower on April 7, followed by New Century Airport in Olathe and Philip Ballard Municipal Airport in Topeka on April 21.

Funding for the Hutchinson Municipal Airport and Manhattan Regional Airport will end May 5.

Manhattan’s control tower will stay open at least through September, however, despite the uncertainty over how the city will pay for it, Manhattan’s mayor told the Manhattan Mercury.

The Kansas control towers affected by the FAA action have operations that range from 55 flights per day, as is the case in Manhattan, to 145 flights a day at Johnson County Executive Airport, according to AirNav.com.

By comparison, traffic at Jabara Airport in Wichita and the Newton City/County Airport, both of which operate without control towers, have average daily flights of 105 and 178, respectively.

Advocates for pilots and airports said stopping federal funding for towers – and thus their potential closings – will compromise safety and impose economic hardship on businesses such as flight schools that rely on controllers to guide the planes.

Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association President Craig Fuller has said that control tower closures would have a serious potential impact on general aviation safety, emergency medical operations, law enforcement, small businesses, agriculture and others.

The FAA said that its foremost mission is to transport passengers safely throughout the U.S. and around the world.

“Airports operate safely throughout the United States with and without towers,” it said. “While we regret the need to cease FAA funding on these towers, we have worked to ensure that the airport environment remains safe as we make the transition.”

The FAA noted that any tower closings won’t necessarily force airports to close.

The airports will be able to operate as nontower airports with pilots broadcasting their positions to one another over a shared radio frequency called a Common Traffic Advisory Frequency.

And if airports choose to provide tower services as nonfederal control towers, the FAA will discuss continued use of the buildings and equipment. It also will discuss agreements in which airports can reimburse the FAA for other services, such as maintenance and logistics.

The FAA won’t begin removing equipment and terminating local service agreements immediately, it said.

In most cases, that will take up to 90 days after funding ceases.

The FAA also published a list of items an airport must consider when a tower closes, such as common traffic frequencies, pilot-activated lights and weather reporting capabilities.

In many instances, the airports already have these in place.

Reach Molly McMillin at 316-269-6708 or mmcmillin@wichitaeagle.com.

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