NORMAN — The planned April 7 closure of OU’s Max Westheimer Airport air traffic control tower has local and state general aviation officials concerned about flying safety.
The local tower, a contracted operation, is one of five air traffic control towers in Oklahoma to close next month, with another set to close in September. The closure is part of a cost-cutting move on the part of the Federal Aviation Administration ordered by the federal sequestration that began March 1.
“What we’re getting right now is that the FAA will cease to fund the operation on April 7,” said Walt Strong, Westheimer manager. “They’re to going to shut it down and it’s going to be lights out for us.”
Westheimer, home base to many business airplanes and the state’s own air fleet, has about 56,000 take-offs and landings a year. Westheimer is also an emergency reliever for Will Rogers World airport. It is believed to be the third busiest general aviation airport in the state.
Norman pilot Randy Richison said the local aviation community will survive, but he wishes the federal government would prioritize better instead of cutting costs that affect safety.
“I tend to be a fiscal conservative but I believe if the government was efficient, then a two percent cut would be easier to swallow. I would think they would find less esential things to cut,” Richison said.
“We can live with it but in terms of safety, in cities this size with a large flight school, it doesn’t make sense. What ever happened to the word ‘priority?’ Let’s get rid of the non-productive, inefficient things first,” Richison said.
Football game day traffic is intense and Strong, the airport director, said no exceptions have been proposed for those fall Saturdays.
“We’re all expressing some concern,” he said. “When the FAA tells us you are the No. 1 priority of aviation safety, and they promote that and then this happens it’s pretty troubling.”
State aviation officials said the tower closings will impact Ardmore, Enid, Lawton, Stillwater and Wiley Post in Oklahoma City as well as Norman. In addition, the overnight shifts for the towers at Will Rogers World Airport in Oklahoma City and Tulsa International Airport will be eliminated.
“The closing of air traffic control towers is extremely troubling to me and others within the aviation community because it jeopardizes air safety,” Victor Bird, director of the Oklahoma Aeronautics Commission said in a press release this past week. “Eliminating air traffic control towers just to save a buck is not a wise thing to do. The risk is too great.”
Bird explained that the state’s general aviation airports, especially those whose towers are scheduled for closure play a vital role in the state’s air transportation system, such as OU Westheimer Airport in Norman, which also serves as a reliever airport for Will Rogers World Airport.
“We have thousands of take offs and landings every week at our 110 public airports, and each one, in its own right, provides access for many businesses that rely on general aviation aircraft to compete and grow their business. These are the same businesses that provide good-paying jobs in their respective communities,” Bird said, pointing to companies such as Michelin in Ardmore, Goodyear in Lawton, Groendyke Transport in Enid, Love’s Convenience Stores in Oklahoma City and Harrison Gypsum in Norman as prime examples.
“When the FAA or the Department of Transportation makes decisions that will endanger the lives of people in the air or on the ground, they need to step back and reconsider their options, especially when they have repeatedly stated that safety is their number-one priority,” Bird said.
Of the 238 air traffic control towers set for closure nationwide, 189 are part of the FAA’s Contract Tower Program, a program that the DOT’s inspector general repeatedly said is cost effective for American taxpayers. The average annual cost to operate a contract tower is $537,000 compared to $2 million for a FAA tower. The 251 contract towers in the U.S. handle about 28 percent of all tower traffic operations but account for just 9 percent of the FAA’s overall budget for tower operations. These closures amount to a 75 percent cut in the Contract Tower Program, grossly disproportionate to the other cuts FAA is making as a result of the sequester.
“Cutting such a cost-effective program that ensures safety in the skies makes no sense whatsoever,” Bird said.
Except for Will Rogers World Airport, Tulsa International Airport and R.L. Jones Airport in Tulsa, all of Oklahoma’s air traffic control towers are contract towers, meaning they are staffed by non-federal employees. The loss of those vital services could significantly compromise the safety of pilots who would no longer be able to communicate with the control tower but would have to rely on communication with other pilots in the air or on the ground to take off or land.
The tower closings are a result of sequestration that began March 1 which mandates the federal government trim $85 billion from its FY 2013 budget. For its part, the FAA was forced to cut about $600 million from its budget. Bird urged Congress to come to a compromise so that these cuts to the Contract Tower Program would not occur.
In addition to the contract towers, the FAA announced it is shuttering 49 FAA-staffed towers. It has notified most of its 47,000 employees that they will be furloughed one day each pay period throughout the rest of the fiscal year.