FAA delays air tower closures

PARKERSBURG – A delay in the closure of 149 federal contract air traffic control towers including the facility in Wood County was welcome news Friday for local officials.

“I’m pretty excited about it,” airport manager Terry Moore said.

The tower at the Mid-Ohio Valley Regional Airport was among the facilities to be closed in May by the Federal Aviation Administration because of the agency’s required $637 million budget cuts under sequestration, unless airports continued operations as a nonfederal contract tower.

A phased, four-week process was to begin Sunday; however, the FAA on Friday announced the closures will be delayed until June 15.

Mid-Ohio and the other West Virginia airport towers targeted for closure “can breathe a sigh of relief” at least a little longer in finding a way to finance the operations until the start of the new federal fiscal year in October, Wood County Commissioner Blair Couch. Towers also were slated for closure at Wheeling and Greenbrief Valley airports.

“May 9 was coming quick,” Couch said.

Couch was on the telephone discussing the situation when he was notified of the FAA decision.

“This is a home run,” he said.

Representatives from the airport earlier this week met with Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., about ways to keep the tower open. The fear is once the equipment was moved out of the tower, it would be nearly impossible to reopen it, so efforts are underway to generate local or state funding to keep the towers open until October when operating funds may be in the new federal budget.

The decision to delay the closure makes the proposal for local and state funding more feasible, Moore said.

Moore’s estimate to keep the tower open is about $150,000 if it was to close in May. By extending it to June, one less month of funding is needed, he said.

“That’s why I think it’s a deal,” Moore said.

The delay also will give local officials more time to convince the FAA “why this tower should remain open,” said Bob Coulter, who works for Midwest Air Traffic Control Services of Overland, Kan., the contractor which operates the tower at the Wood County airport.

“We’re pretty excited about the prospect,” he said.

County Commissioner Wayne Dunn, a member of the Wood County Airport Authority, said Friday the delay is heartening.

“It’s a good sign,” he said. “It tells us there is a serious discussion still taking place on this issue in Washington.”

Dunn said he believes the airport and its tower remain vital to the economy in Wood County.

“It had been a dry spell for the airport for many years, and it appears we are just now getting it turned around,” he said. “For the next 10-15 years we need that airport. It plays a key role in opportunity for the region.”

As of Friday, about 50 airport authorities and other stakeholders have indicated they may join the FAA’s non-Federal Contract Tower program and fund the tower operations themselves. This additional time will allow the FAA to help facilitate that transition.

“We will continue our outreach to the user community to answer any questions and address their concerns about these tower closures,” said FAA Administrator Michael Huerta.

The FAA said the additional time will allow the agency to attempt to resolve multiple legal challenges to the closure decisions. As part of the closure process, the agency will continue to consult with airports and operators and review appropriate risk mitigations. Extending the transition deadline will give the FAA and airports more time to execute the changes to the National Airspace System.

“This has been a complex process and we need to get this right,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. “Safety is our top priority. We will use this additional time to make sure communities and pilots understand the changes at their local airports.”