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Airport tower closing nears

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Air traffic controller Chris Dement works in the tower at the The Columbus Municipal Airport Tuesday September 11, 2012. (Joe Harpring | The Republic)
Air traffic controller Chris Dement works in the tower at the The Columbus Municipal Airport Tuesday September 11, 2012. (Joe Harpring | The Republic)

As seen from the airport's west side, Columbus Municipal Airport Tuesday September 11, 2012. (Joe Harpring | The Republic)
As seen from the airport's west side, Columbus Municipal Airport Tuesday September 11, 2012. (Joe Harpring | The Republic)

The Columbus Municipal Airport flight control tower is three weeks away from being closed for lack of funds, but airfield board members and corporations that use the facility’s two runways daily are downplaying the economic impact and insisting that travel remains safe.

“It’s not going to have much of an impact on our operations, although we’re disappointed how the government has gone about this,” said Brad Stinebring, director of corporate aviation for engine maker Cummins Inc., which keeps four company aircraft at the Columbus airport — three jets and one German-made turboprop craft.

“I was surprised the airport tower’s being closed. We as an aviation industry have worked hard to mitigate risks in air travel and a tower provides another set of eyes to guide aircraft. That said, I don’t expect the tower’s closure to affect how or how often we use the airport,” said Chris Sdun, director of flight operations for Toyota Material Handling Inc., the parent company of Toyota’s industrial forklift plant six miles south of Columbus.

The Federal Aviation Administration announced March 22 that it would stop funding 149 air traffic control towers operated at smaller, regional airports around the U.S. in a bid to trim its budget amid the federal debt debate causing steep cuts under the process known as sequestration.

Since then, Columbus airport director Brian Payne said the FAA has told him that the local tower’s federal funds — more than $350,000 per year — will stop April 21.

“The FAA is cutting 24 towers on April 7; 46 more, including us and Gary, Ind., on April 21; and 79 others on May 5. We’re in the middle batch,” said Payne, who has been airport director since last fall.

The director said five air traffic control operators who staff the Columbus tower will lose their jobs when the federal funds stop flowing.

The personnel are actually contract workers employed by a private company, Midwest Air Traffic Control based in Overland Park, Kan., that provides such services nationwide. Midwest couldn’t be reached for comment over the Easter holiday.

Columbus Mayor Kristen Brown already has said there are no prospects of finding city funds to pay for air traffic control employees once federal funds run dry.

Up to this point, the control tower has been funded 100 percent with federal dollars flowing from the FAA.

“We never want to go ask for tax money,” said Steve Fushelberger, a member of the Columbus Municipal Airport board of commissioners and a licensed pilot.

Loss of the tower is the second economic hit taken by the Columbus airport since late last year.

On Dec. 20, an out-of-state commercial air carrier that was providing commuter flights between Columbus and Detroit ended that service because of little demand.

Ultimate Air Shuttle, based in Cincinnati, ended the Detroit flights because no more than eight or nine passengers booked trips on the airline’s 30-seat aircraft toward the end of last year, Payne said.

Ultimate is classified as a public charter airline that operates on a published schedule and sells seats to the public.

Stinebring said closing the tower — unless there’s an eleventh-hour reprieve from Washington — may slow arrivals and departures of some flights at Columbus by a few minutes due to altered communications channels required without a tower.

“It depends how many airplanes are trying to come and go at the same time,” the Cummins executive said.

On many occasions, private pilots will communicate directly with each other over dedicated frequencies when approaching the airport, or they will talk with an Indianapolis radar center as their altitude and distance from Columbus increases.

Fushelberger, the airport board member, said pilots are accustomed to following very strict “rules of the air,” using well-defined visual and instrument flight guidelines to avoid accidents.

“The Columbus tower already was unmanned from 10 p.m. to 6:30 a.m. daily,” he said, “and there weren’t any problems. In fact, you’re 313,000 times more likely to die driving a car than you are in an airplane.”

Sdun of Toyota Material Handling said his company uses the Columbus airport 10 or 15 times a month to bring in clients interested in the company’s industrial products, and it found the process of getting clients to town much smoother than using the larger Indianapolis airport nearly an hour away.

He doesn’t expect any safety problems when the control tower goes dark.

“Most of the airports in the U.S. are uncontrolled fields, and that simply means the responsibility among pilots to communicate their positions and remain diligent is increased,” Sdun said. “Passengers won’t notice the difference in terms of operations.”

Jason Hester, executive director of the Columbus Economic Development Board, said his organization is monitoring the effects of losing the control tower, but he doubts the FAA’s cuts will hurt Columbus’ overall business image.

“Safety concerns are shared by all,” Hester said, “but as far as our marketing image, we are in the same boat as a lot of other airports. I don’t see this as being a difficulty for us.”

Payne said the airport runs on a $1.4 million annual budget and prides itself on being able to pay its bills with self-generated sources of revenue, including money from leasing hangar space to corporate customers and leasing surrounding acreage to farmers who grow wheat, corn and soybeans on the land within earshot of airplanes taking off.

Going dark

The Columbus Municipal Airport will stay open, but it’s scheduled to lose federal funding for its air traffic control tower April 21. Here’s the impact:

Five air traffic controllers employed on a contract basis through Midwest Air Traffic Control, a private company based in Overland Park, Kan., will lose their positions.

The Federal Aviation Administration will start closing contract towers around the U.S. on April 7. A total of 24 towers lose FAA money that day.

On April 21, 46 additional control towers will be cut, including the one at Columbus Municipal Airport and another tower at the Gary/Chicago International Airport.

Finally, on May 5 another 79 towers will lose funding, though no other airports in Indiana will be affected, federal data show.

The Columbus airport board of commissioners said it’s monitoring the situation but doesn’t expect to seek local tax dollars to staff the control tower once FAA funding is lost.

Airport executives say flight and passenger safety will not be affected by the tower’s closure.

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