Janesville air traffic tower closure seems to be 'sure thing,' official says

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Jenny Sharp
Wednesday, March 27, 2013

— Staffing the control tower at the Southern Wisconsin Regional Airport could cost county taxpayers $500,000 a year, a price that two county officials said Tuesday probably is too high.

Unlikely as it is, that might be the best option for staffing the tower that the Federal Aviation Administration has said will close May 5, one of 149 federal contract towers being shuttered as part of the agency's sequestration implementation plan.

“The FAA has given us that option, but it would double the airport's tax levy,” said Airport Director Ron Burdick.

“I don't think that would pass at the county board level,” added Kurtis Yankee, a county supervisor who chairs the county board's public works committee.

Yankee's committee met Tuesday and discussed the impending closure of the tower now operated by Midwest Air Traffic Control Service and funded by the FAA.

“It looks like a sure thing,” Yankee said about the closure.

Without air-traffic controllers, pilots will have to coordinate takeoffs and landings on three crossing runways among themselves. Typically, they will do so over a shared radio frequency, but Yankee said not all planes have the radios.

The airport recorded 57,000 take-offs or landings last year, including cargo planes, students taking flying lessons, a charter service and corporate jet traffic. More than 100 aircraft are based at the airport.

On summer weekends, Kealy's Airport Kafe is a big breakfast draw for recreational flyers. The restaurant, however, plans to close in April.

The local tower is now staffed daily from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. Outside those hours, pilots radio the airport in Rockford, Ill., or use designated radio frequencies to turn up the runway lights.

Airport officials said they've heard nothing but disbelief that the FAA plans to close the Janesville tower, and the vast majority of that disbelief centers on safety concerns.

“They just don't know how they can stay safe without us,” said Earl Arrowood, ATC's air traffic manager in Janesville. “People just can't believe what's going on.”

When the tower closes at 9 p.m. Sunday, May 5, ATC's employees will lose their jobs. Arrowood declined to say how many employees would be affected.

Burdick, the airport director, has heard the same sorts of safety concerns.

“Because of our three runways and the fact that they all intersect, it's a little more difficult to coordinate than it is at a single-runway airport,” Burdick said.

Burdick said the tower closure appears permanent.

“There's been no confirmation that it won't be,” he said. “My feeling is that once it closes, it's going to stay closed.”

Arrowood said that's one school of thought.

Another, he said, is one he hopes nobody sees.

“If a bunch of accidents start happening, people are going to get really riled up,” he said.

Arrowood said some airports with towers scheduled for closing are considering lawsuits against the FAA. Burdick said he is aware of those, but the county has not taken a position on whether to support them.

“Nobody is really in favor of closing it at our level, but it's happening at the national level with the sequester, and it really hasn't hit us until now,” Yankee said.

In the meantime, businesses that use the airport are observing from the sidelines.

One of those is SHINE Medical Technologies, a medical isotope manufacturer that plans to begin production in 2016 and routinely use the airport to ship its decay-sensitive products around the country.

Greg Piefer, the company's founder and chief executive officer, said it's difficult for SHINE to determine today what the impact of no tower will be on his company in three years.

“Of course, we'd like to have the airport functioning as efficiently as possible, and the tower likely helps ensure this,” he said.

SC Aviation is the largest jet operator at the airport, the home base for the charter company that routinely flies customers around the country.

For the foreseeable future, the company is committed to its Janesville base, said Andy Schweickert, its marketing communications manager.

The tower, he said, plays a critical role in ground control and the coordination of final descents and takeoffs.

“An unmanned tower diminishes safety,” he said in an email. “A second set of eyes watching operations on the field makes everything safer, especially with cross runways.

“An unmanned tower can affect efficiency as well. Since we are an on-demand charter operator, our customers rely on punctuality. Safety is always our primary concern, however.”

Schweickert said the nature of SC Aviation's business often puts its aircraft and pilots into airports without towers.

“General aviation allows passengers to get closer to their final destination, especially in remote locations not served by commercial service,” he said. “As such, we frequently operate in and out of airports without towers or, as it stands in many cases now, no tower personnel.

“In those cases, pilots have to manage themselves. Obviously the more help they have in that regard—people in towers—the safer the operation for everyone.”

Last updated: 8:16 am Monday, April 29, 2013

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