March 29, 2013

Airports suing FAA over planned tower shutdowns

Airports have begun mounting a legal challenge to the FAA’s decision to shut down 149 air traffic control towers as part of federal budget cuts.

Airports have begun mounting a legal challenge to the FAA’s decision to shut down 149 air traffic control towers as part of federal budget cuts.

So far, none of the five Kansas towers targeted to lose the funding has joined the legal battle to keep the facilities open.

The lawsuits that have been filed argue that the agency has violated a federal law meant to ensure that major changes at airports do not erode safety. The Central Illinois Regional Airport is among the latest to file suit with the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C.

The other airports are Spokane International Airport in Spokane, Wash., and three airports in Florida. The court has combined the suits into a single case.

Eric Johnson, who manages the Philip Billard Municipal Airport in Topeka, said a decision has not been made on whether to participate in the lawsuit.

“We just don’t know yet,” Johnson said. “I really don’t have an answer.”

The airport board will meet in April, he said, ahead of the tower closing, which came as a surprise.

“It’s not anything we expected,” Johnson said. “If they’re going to do this, they should do it in a way we can budget for a massive change.”

The other Kansas towers slated to close include Hutchinson Municipal Airport, New Century Air Center in Olathe, Manhattan Regional Airport and Johnson County Executive Airport in Olathe.

The closures will not force the shutdown of any of the airports. But pilots will need to coordinate takeoffs and landings among themselves over a shared radio frequency without help from ground controllers. All pilots are trained to fly using those procedures.

Small airports can’t add the cost to support and maintain a control tower and the equipment into their budgets, especially in the middle of a fiscal year, Johnson said.

Colin McKee, deputy director for the Johnson County Executive Airport and the New Century Air Center, said legal action had been considered.

But Johnson County commissioners decided not to participate, McKee said.

“We were told no,” he said.

Manhattan Regional Airport manager Peter VanKuren said he’s not aware of any legal action the city may be considering.

The airport is working with the city commission, however, about the possibility of continuing to fund the control tower at least through the end of the federal fiscal year in September, VanKuren said.

The Manhattan City Commission will meet on Tuesday.

Pieter Miller, Hutchinson’s airport manager, said he forwarded the information to the city’s attorney. But he doesn’t yet know what will happen.

In the meantime, the city is exploring the possibility of keeping the tower operating.

In Olathe, the cost to maintain the Johnson County and New Century control towers total about $600,000 apiece per year, McKee said.

Without the FAA funding, that makes it expensive to keep the control towers operating.

“We don’t have the money to pay for that,” he said.

While airports can operate without towers, they won’t be as safe, McKee said.

Garmin’s test facility operates test flights from the airports. And regional jets and fast business jets, such as the Gulfstream V and Cessna Citation X, use the runways daily, McKee said.

The faster aircraft must mix in with slower-moving planes without a tower’s help to keep them separated.

Instead, the pilots will have to work it out among themselves, McKee said.

The two airports are busy. Together, they handle more than 50,000 takeoffs and landings a year, he said.

Federal contract towers cost about 25 percent of the cost of a comparable FAA tower, said Johnson of the Philip Billard airport in Topeka.

And the safety ratings are better.

“It’s safer and it’s cheaper,” Johnson said.

Central Illinois airport Director Carl Olson said the lawsuits being filed ask the court to compel the FAA to more carefully study the potential safety impact.

FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown says the agency can’t comment on pending litigation.

Contributing: Associated Press

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