Officials: Local tower critical to airspace safety
JANESVILLE — The signs on the fence surrounding the air traffic control tower at the Southern Wisconsin Regional Airport carry an ominous warning.
An interruption of service at the tower, the Federal Aviation Administration signs read, could result in loss of life.
Those working inside the tower find the signs hypocritical, particularly as the FAA is proposing to significantly interrupt service at the Janesville tower and others around the country.
A decision is expected this week on whether the FAA will close more than 200 air traffic control towers in order to meet $600 million in budget cuts under the sequester that took effect March 1.
The airports would remain open if a tower is closed, but pilots would have to coordinate takeoffs and landings among themselves via radio and visual contact, as they do now at night when the tower isn't open.
A significant number of the towers proposed for closure are contract towers run by independent companies the FAA hires to operate towers at smaller airports.
The tower at the Southern Wisconsin Regional Airport is a contract tower operated by Midwest Air Traffic Control Service. It is staffed every day between 6 a.m. and 9 p.m. and last year handled about 57,000 operations, with an operation being defined as a takeoff or a landing.
Earl Arrowood, the company's air traffic manager in Janesville, said the local airport needs a staffed air traffic control tower.
"We're not like a lot of other airports," he said. "We're the only one in Wisconsin with three intersecting runways, and we're just one of a few with an onsite restaurant that people fly in to."
The three runways present six different approaches, which Arrowood said is a recipe for disaster without guidance from the control tower.
The airspace also is complex, he said, with Rockford controlling approach authority and Madison airspace just three miles to the northwest of the field.
That airspace is made even more complex by the variety of users the airport attracts, Arrowood said.
"We have numerous student pilot training operations, and many of those are 16- to 18-year-olds who train with the Wisconsin Aviation Academy," he said, adding the airport also is home to more than 10 corporate jets and turbo-prop aircraft, including state planes that fly Wisconsin School for the Visually Handicapped students in and out of Janesville on weekends.
The airport is particularly busy on summer weekends, when the tower handles 30 to 50 operations every hour, Arrowood said. In addition, the tower routinely alerts local air traffic to glider and parachuting activities in the Beloit area.
"You combine all that, and this is a very busy airport," he said, noting that Southern Wisconsin is routinely one of the top three busiest airports in the state in terms of tower operations.
As vice president of national business development for Beloit-based ABC Supply Co., Brent Fox oversees the company's aviation operations and two corporate jets.
"With three different runways that all intersect one another, there are six different ways to take off and land, and that can create some confusion," Fox said. "You've got a mix of business jets that move quite fast and slower, single-engine general aviation aircraft, so the potential is there to have different types of aircraft in the same area.
"I have a great appreciation for having someone in that tower."
When he's piloting an ABC jet into the airport, the tower is an extra set of eyes on local traffic that might be practicing at the airport.
"They know we're coming, and if they're working some local traffic, they know they have sequencing issues that they need to deal with," Fox said.
Arrowood said an amendment is circulating in Washington, D.C., that would force the FAA to close an equal number of contract towers and towers staffed by FAA personnel. With the existing proposal, 75 percent of the towers considered for closure are contract towers, while only 5 percent are FAA towers, he said.
"The amendment would level the playing field between contract and FAA towers," Arrowood said.
If all the contract towers are closed, about 1,600 jobs will be lost, he said.
More significant, he said, would be the potential for disaster with mid-air collisions, runway accidents and flight delays.
If the local tower closes and those things happen, Fox said it would be likely runways would have to be closed at an airport that is a critical element in the area's economic development toolbox.