The loss of Hutchinson airport’s air traffic control tower will be like a city losing its traffic lights.
“Just hoping everybody looks both ways before going through the intersection,” said Hutchinson airport manager Pieter Miller.
Miller and the managers of four other Kansas airports will be without manned air traffic control towers effective April 7, according to a list released Friday by the Federal Aviation Administration.
The FAA said it was closing 149 contract towers across the country to meet the budget-cutting requirements that were part of the sequestration deal reached by Congress and the Obama administration.
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“We heard from communities across the country about the importance of their towers and these were very tough decisions,” Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a statement about the tower closures. “Unfortunately we are faced with a series of difficult choices that we have to make to reach the required cuts under sequestration.”
But Miller and state aviation officials are concerned by the safety implications of eliminating tower operations.
“I guess safety be damned,” said Ed Young, director of aviation for the Kansas Department of Transportation.
Planes, including airliners, can continue to fly to airports without towers. Most of the roughly 5,000 U.S. public airports don’t have towers. Instead of being guided by controllers, pilots radio each other to coordinate landings and takeoffs, according to FAA procedures.
In addition to Hutchinson, contract towers will be closed at New Century AirCenter in Olathe, Manhattan Regional Airport, Johnson County Executive Airport in Olathe, and Philip Billard Municipal Airport in Topeka.
Two other Kansas airports that were initially on FAA’s list for closure – Forbes Field in Topeka and Garden City Regional Airport – were not on Friday’s list.
“Forbes was probably our most complex (airport),” Young said. “It also takes a lot of military charters … a lot of Air Force (charters). It’s kind of a relief that one is off the list. That’s not to say any of them are particularly good (choices for tower closings).”
Young said Garden City will probably have its tower until Sept. 30 because it’s a “cost-sharing” tower, in which the local community shares part of the expense of paying for a private contractor to operate the tower.
The only Kansas airport of the five scheduled to close that has commercial airline service is Manhattan.
Young said about 60,000 passengers pass through the Manhattan airport annually.
With the commercial traffic and the military operations of nearby Fort Riley, “there’s a tremendous amount of traffic operating out of there,” Young said.
Miller said he wasn’t surprised to learn Friday that Hutchinson will lose its tower, even though it has had one since the early 1950s. Still, “personally I’m in a little bit of shock” because of the size and complexity of the airport that operates two runways and has 40,000 flight operations a year, including from Wichita airplane manufacturers, which frequently use the airport for certification flights of freshly manufactured airplanes.
He said Cessna, Beechcraft and Bombardier provided the FAA with letters supporting Hutchinson airport’s efforts to keep its tower. “I think they’re going to be forced to go to airports that have control towers,” Miller said.
Miller said he is not optimistic that a last-minute solution will emerge. “I’m not going to give up until 11 p.m. on April 6,” he said. “But I have no reason to believe the tower … will come back.”
Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., who has been a vocal opponent of the FAA’s plans to pare its contract towers, said in a statement Friday that he is not giving up.
“Although my amendment to the (continuing resolution) to save the control towers and protect public safety was blocked, this fight is not over,” Moran said in the statement. “The Contract Tower Program is one of the most efficiently-run programs in the FAA, and it should be protected from an arbitrary and unfair 75 percent cut. I will continue my work to make certain the Administration puts the safety of air travelers first, and will actively encourage the FAA reconsider its decision. I have already spoken to the Chairperson of the Appropriations Committee to seek out other avenues to protect the 149 control towers slated for closure.”
Miller said Hutchinson airport stands to lose money without a control tower. “We earn revenue from fuel sales,” he said. “The less fuel we sell, the less revenue we make. That’s basically how it’s going to affect the airport.”
Contributing: Molly McMillin of The Eagle and Bloomberg News