Meridian Star

Local News

March 3, 2013

Key Field tower among those that may close

MERIDIAN —     Members of congress from Mississippi warned against claims from President Barack Obama's administration that budget cuts, called sequestration, would close down airport control towers owned by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

    According to the Associated Press, automatic federal budget cuts could shut down control towers at as many as seven Mississippi airports.

    U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood warned recently of the closing of 100 airport towers at airports that have 150,000 flights or fewer each year if automatic federal spending cuts take effect March 1, said the AP.

    The Federal Aviation Administration says that among the airports that could be affected are Greenville's Mid-Delta Regional Airport, Columbus' Golden Triangle Regional Airport, Jackson's Hawkins Field, Bay St. Louis' Stennis International Airport, Meridian's Key Field, Olive Branch Airport and Tupelo Regional Airport. They're on a list of 200 airports from which the FAA expects to select 100 towers to be closed by April 1.

    Tom Williams, director of the Meridian Regional Airport on Highway 11 South said all this talk of shutting down these airports, especially at Key Field, is an exercise in posturing by politicians.

    "I'm not losing any sleep over this," Williams said. "We will do some 'what if' scenarios just in the remote chance this may happen but I don't expect us to be impacted by this at all."

    The FAA says, according to the AP, it will cut $600 million from the rest of the 2013 budget year. LaHood warns that because other controllers will be furloughed without pay up to one day a week, delays are likely even with air travel to larger airports. LaHood warned of delays of up to 90 minutes to fly to major airports and predicted airlines will reschedule or cancel flights.

    If towers close, pilots who are landing and taking off would probably communicate with each other on a common radio frequency. But it could slow down airport operations and make fields ineligible for some military operations.

    "As far as the pilots, they fly in and out of airports all the time that are not controlled by an on site tower," Williams said. "They've been doing that since they got their license so that is nothing new to them and it is perfectly safe. Will it impact arrival and departure times? Maybe. If it does the airlines will adjust their schedules."        The tower at Key Field is owned by the FAA. The thing that sets the Key Field tower apart from majority of others is that it is manned by members of the 248th Air Traffic Control Squadron of the 186th Air Refueling Wing, Mississippi Air National Guard. Lt. Col. John Lockett is the commander of the 248th ATCS and said he is not at liberty to delve into the politics of the possibility the tower could be closed.

    "I will say, however, we are open for business now and on the job," Lockett said. "The National Guard Bureau has been in contact with the FAA and we are just doing our job, keeping the flying public safe, waiting for their decision."

    Williams said the FAA owns 514 towers across the nation. He said there are more than 15,000 airports of differing sizes in the United States. Of those 514 FAA owned towers, the controllers in 251 of them are contract controllers from private companies while 10 of the towers are controlled by members of the Air National Guard.

    "I think the fact our tower has air guard controllers makes it even more unlikely the tower here would shut down," Williams said.

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