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The Federal Aviation Administration has decided to close the Columbus Municipal Airport control tower and 148 others around the U.S. within six weeks to trim several hundred million dollars from the federal aviation budget required by the lingering congressional budget impasse.
“It amounts to a state of confusion for a lot of people right now,” Caleb Tennis, president of the Columbus airport Board of Aviation Commission, said Friday after learning the news.
“Of course, our biggest priority is safety, and we have things in place to keep operations running on a safe and secure course,” Tennis said.
The control tower in Gary also is due to be closed no later than early May under the FAA ruling, announced Friday afternoon in Washington.
The ruling also said it would keep 24 federal contract towers open in the national interest, and another 16 open because they share at least a portion of costs with the federal government for their operations. Indiana towers that were spared in the cost-share category included those in Muncie and Bloomington.
Tennis said he’s uncertain what — if anything — the airport board could do to replace federal funding in the next few weeks. Five air traffic controllers’ jobs are among items on the chopping block now. The operating budget for the Columbus tower and its controllers amounts to about $400,000 a year, and it has been supported entirely with federal funds.
One option might be trying to hire some air traffic control personnel with city funds, either as city of Columbus employees or contractors, Tennis said.
But Mayor Kristen Brown quickly shot down that notion.
“(The FAA’s decision) is disappointing for sure, but we will keep operating business as usual as much as possible,” the mayor said in an email response to The Republic. “We obviously appreciated the safety benefits for our customers of operating with a manned tower, but we have always been unmanned late at night.
“Some (cities) may be able to fund their towers with local dollars. We unfortunately don’t have the local property tax dollars to fund ours,” she said.
Tennis said pilots around the U.S. are capable and accustomed to flying in and out of uncontrolled air fields, and Columbus should be able to maintain business even without air control personnel. Tennis is a pilot himself, flying a Cessna 182 four-seat aircraft.
The FAA said 149 towers targeted for closure would begin going dark April 7.
Tennis and airport director Brian Payne said they haven’t been told an exact date for Columbus’ tower to be shut down. The FAA said Friday the nationwide process would take a total of four weeks, pushing the closing date for Columbus’ tower into early May at the latest.
“We have some time to send out notices to pilots and customers to update them on the situation,” Tennis said.
The aviation board president said he understands that City Hall is “constrained by budgets and that money doesn’t come out of thin air” to fund operations.
Payne said airport and city officials sent information to the FAA touting the importance of the Columbus airport in a bid to keep it open. But even highlighting the fact that the Columbus airport hosts about 3,400 military operational flights a year for training apparently wasn’t enough to sway the FAA.
Camp Atterbury in Edinburgh and Muscatatuck Urban Training Center in Jennings County both use the Columbus Municipal Airport.
Federal officials said the choices that had to be made about closing dozens of towers were tough ones.
“We heard from communities across the country about the importance of their towers and these were very tough decisions,” said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. “Unfortunately we are faced with a series of difficult choices that we have to make to reach the required cuts under sequestration.”
“We will work with the airports and the operators to ensure the procedures are in place to maintain the high level of safety at non-towered airports,” FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said.
Payne, who has managed two uncontrolled airports earlier in his career, said pilots are accustomed to flying in and out of such airfields and he’s certain that safety can be maintained.
The Columbus airport director said he was disappointed by the FAA decision, however.
In early March, FAA proposed the closure of nearly 200 control towers as part of its plan to meet the $637 million in cuts being required under U.S. budget sequestration. Among factors that spared some airports in the national interest were:
n Significant threats to national security as determined by the FAA in consultation with the Department of Defense or the Department of Homeland Security.
n Significant, adverse economic impact that is beyond the impact on a local community.
n Significant impact on multistate transportation, communication or banking/financial networks.
The extent to which an airport currently served by a contract tower is a critical diversionary airport to a larger hub.
All of the airports targeted for tower shutdowns have fewer than 150,000 total flight operations per year. Of those, fewer than 10,000 are commercial flights by passenger airlines.
The closures will not force the shutdown of any of those airports, but pilots will be left to coordinate takeoffs and landings among themselves over a shared radio frequency without help from ground controllers.
Payne said the Columbus airport averages about 45,000 flights a year, split equally between general aviation private aircraft and corporate jets. Military air traffic makes up about 8 percent of the municipal airport’s business, he said.
Columbus’ tower operates from 6:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day of the week. Two of the five controllers work on any given day, each working eight-hour shifts.
Tennis and Payne said they don’t know yet what the impact of closing the tower could mean for companies such as Cummins Inc. or Faurecia, which have operations in Columbus and use the airport regularly to transport executives to and from their far-flung business locations.
Cummins has been monitoring the situation, but spokesman Jon Mills could not be reached for comment Friday.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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