Meridian Star

Local News

March 24, 2013

Meridian tower dodges closure

MERIDIAN —     Weeks ago, Tom Williams, the executive director for the Meridian Airport Authority, all but guaranteed the control tower at Key Field would not be closed down as part of the budget cuts the Federal Aviation Administration was set to make.

    Turns out Williams was right.

    Friday, the FAA announced it was closing 149 air traffic control towers across the nation. Key Field was on the list as one that was being considered for closure but when the list came out, Key Field was not on the list.

    "It's nice to win one," Williams said Saturday morning.

    Williams said Key Field had an ace in the hole.

    "Of the towers on the list to be closed, five, including ours, are manned by air national guard personnel," said Williams. "None of those five towers were on the closure list."

    The FAA was given an ultimatum by the Obama administration to close the towers as part of a program to trim hundreds of millions of dollars from their budget. According to the Associated Press, the FAA was forced to trim $637 million for the rest of the fiscal year that ends Sept. 30. The agency said it had no choice but to subject most of its 47,000 employees, including tower controllers, to periodic furloughs and to close air traffic facilities at small airports with lighter traffic. The changes are part of the across-the-board spending cuts known as sequestration, which went into effect March 1.

    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, said the AP.

    Williams said he was confident Key Field could avoid the closure but recently he said the airport authority was in the process of coming up with other plans in the slim chance the local tower was locked up by the FAA.

    "In the final analysis, the FAA determined the towers run by the air guard were too vital for training," Williams said.

    The control tower at Key Field is manned by air national guardsmen and women from the 248th Air Traffic Control Squadron. The unit of the 186th Air Refueling Wing, just received high marks and awards for their service.

    The FAA said five Mississippi airport towers will be among the 149 closing when the FAA begins a four-week phased closure on April 7. Those towers include ones at Hawkins Field in Jackson, Mid-Delta Regional in Greenville, Olive Branch Regional, Tupelo Regional and the Stennis Airport in Bay St. Louis.

    Like Key Field, Golden Triangle Regional Airport in Columbus escaped closure due in large part to the presence of Columbus Air Force Base.

    Williams said the closures will not force any of the airports on the control tower closure list to shut down.

    "These pilots will be left to coordinate takeoffs and landings among themselves over a shared radio frequency with no help from ground controllers," said Williams. "Those procedures are familiar to all pilots."

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