Walla Walla air traffic control tower to stay open

Walla Walla Union-BulletinMarch 24, 2013 

The air-traffic control tower at the Walla Walla Regional Airport has been cleared for continued operation by the Federal Aviation Administration -- at least for the time being.

The local tower was one of 16 spared by the agency’s sweeping sequestration implementation plan announced Friday. That was not the case for 149 other contract towers announced for closure.

The reason for Walla Walla’s reprieve: federal funds for the cost-share contract towers, such as Walla Walla’s, are subject to the 5 percent cuts affecting towers across the country, but they will not result in tower closures, the FAA said Friday.

What will happen with the tower after the fiscal year ends Sept. 30 was not clear. The U.S. Contract Tower Association, an affiliate organization of the American Association of Airport Executives, said the 16 towers will remain open until the end of September. But the FAA did not indicate it had plans to close those towers after that date.

Two other Washington cost-share towers originally slated for closure -- Paine Field in Everett and Grant County International Airport in Moses Lake -- also got reprieve.

But five others in the state will be shuttered in the four-week implementation plan that starts April 7. Those are: Olympia Regional Airport, Renton Municipal Airport, Felts Field in Spokane, Tacoma Narrows Airport and Yakima Air Terminal/McAllister Field. Pendleton’s control tower across the state line was included on the closure list, too.

In March, the FAA announced plans to close up to 189 contract air-traffic control towers in its strategy to meet the $637 million in cuts required through federal budget sequestration.

The agency has opted to keep 24 of those towers open because closing them would have a negative impact on national interest, the announcement said.

“We heard from communities across the country about the importance of their towers and these were very tough decisions,” Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a prepared statement. “Unfortunately, we are faced with a series of difficult choices that we have to make to reach the required cuts under the sequestration.”

He said the DOT will work with airports to assure the current high levels of safety at non-towered airports.

Port of Walla Walla officials have said they don’t anticipate an immediate impact on local aviation. The airport’s sole commercial carrier, Alaska Airlines, operates in other communities without towers.

However, U.S. Contract Tower Association Executive Director J. Spencer Dickerson warned that shuttering facilities on such an unprecedented scale “raises serious concerns about safety -- both at the local level and throughout the aviation system.”

“Given the breadth and scope of the closures, the FAA cannot possibly fully understand the safety impacts, the operational impacts or the immediate and long-term economic hardships this decision will have on affected airports and communities,” he said in a statement.

Controllers at contract towers have a variety of jobs, he said. Those include separating aircraft, issuing safety and weather alerts and assisting with military, emergency response and medical flights. Communities that opt to can participate in the FAA’s non-federal tower program and assume the cost of air-traffic control services at their airports, the FAA said.

National interest considerations for those that remained open include: significant threats to national security determined through consultation with the departments of Defense or Homeland Security; significant adverse economic beyond the borders of a local community; significant impact on multi-state transportation, communication or banking/financial networks; and the extent to which an airport currently served by a contract tower is a critical diversionary airport to a large hub.

In addition to the tower closures, the FAA’s sequestration implementation includes furloughs for most of the agency’s 47,000 employees. Workers will be furloughed one day per pay period between April and the end of September, with a maximum of two days per pay period. Midnight shifts in 60 U.S. towers have also been eliminated. The agency also anticipates reduction of preventive maintenance and equipment provisioning for all National Airspace System equipment.

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