Work to save airport tower taking flight

WILLIAMSTOWN -Working together to keep the local air traffic control tower open, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and airport officials are keeping communication open.

“I am impressed Manchin did call and speak with the Department of Transportation,” said Mid-Ohio Valley Regional Airport manager Terry Moore. “This really proves to me that he is a man of his word and I am happy to work with him.”

During a meeting at West Virginia University at Parkersburg on Wednesday for his “Commonsense Solutions” tour, Manchin met with Moore, Wood County commissioners and other airport officials; the question of whether using local funds to keep the tower going in the short term came up.

In March, the Federal Aviation Administration announced it would close 149 towers across the country at smaller airports, including the local one, because of automatic sequestration cuts.

“(Thursday) morning I contacted the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) and spoke with David Grizzle (chief operating officer of air traffic organization for the FAA) about if the administration would be accepting of this and how this could be done,” said Manchin. “It’s a calculated risk, but one that I think could pay off.”

Moore said after speaking to Manchin on Thursday on if the towers that remained open between the closures this Sunday and May 5 would receive federal funding in the next federal budget, he was answered in the positive with “some level of confidence.”

“If it is a finite period and the tower will be refunded in the next budget, it would probably behoove us to work to keep it open on some level,” Moore said. “Because we know with all certainty that once the tower is closed, it will not be reopened.

“There is a feeling that the tower will be refunded in the next fiscal year and we don’t want to lose out if at all possible,” he said.

Manchin said he recommends the local airport do anything it can to keep the tower.

“My recommendation is that any way that it can be open, they should do so,” the senator said. “Getting federal funding for these towers in the next budget is something I will work very hard to do and if the three in West Virginia are able to stay open through Oct. 1, they will be made a priority to receive funding when it comes back.”

Moore said that beyond how to fund the tower, which could be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars for the next six months, what level to keep it open is the major question.

“There are a lot of factors: would we hire the existing contractor or try to hire new people, when would the tower be operational, what level would it need to run? There are so many things to consider,” Moore said.

The tower is open and monitoring the air space from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily. Moore said he would need to speak with the tower officials to see when the busiest times for operations are and if it would be possible to only staff the tower at certain times.

“If all we’re trying to do is trying to maintain a presence, maybe keeping up with the highest time of traffic, we could keep the safety level we would like to maintain,” Moore said.

The tower controls more than 36,000 operations a year, which averages to about 106 a day, according to Moore and tower officials. These include general aviation, military and commercial flights into and out of the airport.

The air traffic controllers are able to watch the air space and tell the pilots when it is safe to land and take off. Without the tower, the pilots will have to radio one another and watch for themselves, which can be tricky and will cause flight delays, according to local tower manager Bob Coulter.

“It is a financial risk for us to keep this tower going for the next six months until Congress can pass a budget,” Moore said. “If we spend $150,000 keeping it open and the towers are not refunded, we just wasted money, but if we let it close and they are refunded, we have lost a tower forever.

“Fortunately we have until May 5 to decide what we do and we can take into account what happened with the towers that close this Sunday,” he said. “There are just a lot of questions and decisions we have to make.”

Moore said that if the tower closes, he is pleased to learn the FAA will pay to remove the equipment, but will be cautious as to how the air space over the airport will be for the first month or two.

“I hate to wave the safety flag too much, but my most uncomfortable place is probably the first 30 to 60 days after the tower closes,” he said. “Also, there is a national identity we have on air maps that is given because we have a tower and that identity loss would be a lot more than safety.

“With the local economy and the airport traffic being better than it was, I really hate to see the feds jerk the rug out from under us with this,” Moore said.