Officials: Fargo Tower Shutdown Could Delay Medical Flights

FARGO, N.D. (AP) -- A proposal to shut down the airport control tower here during overnight hours could delay medical flights for critically ill patients from the region, aviation officials say.

The Federal Aviation Administration will decide in the next month whether to close the tower at Hector International Airport from midnight to 5 a.m. Planes wanting to take off and land during that time would be controlled by another tower.

That could put hospital planes in a holding pattern because Minneapolis radar can only handle one plane at a time, pilot Troy Seidel said Wednesday during a news conference called by Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D.

''The quicker we can get them to those surgeons ... the better chance we have of saving this patient's life,'' said Dan Ehlen, director of MeritCare Hospital's LifeFlight program.

The FAA would not shut down a tower if it could jeopardize public safety, agency spokeswoman Elizabeth Isham Cory said.

''This review is something we've done for the last 15 years,'' Cory said. ''We're trying to be a good steward of the taxpayers' money.''

Fargo averages fewer than one flight an hour from midnight to 5 a.m., Cory said.

The control tower at the airport in Rochester, Minn., is closed from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m., but it doesn't affect service for the medical transport airplane at Mayo Clinic, a hospital spokesman said.

''Given that there aren't other flights coming in, it's not a concern for us,'' Mayo's Lee Aase said.

Even if traffic is light, radar coverage from other towers cannot show ground conditions that are often hazardous at the Fargo airport in the winter, local aviation officials said.

''With a control tower here, you've got eyes on the field,'' said Col. Robert Becklund, commander of the North Dakota Air National Guard's 119th Fighter Wing.

The airport has one air traffic controller who works the overnight hours. Cory said eliminating that shift would save about $25,000 a year in labor costs, including work by technicians.

There are 16 controllers at the Hector tower. None of them would lose their jobs if the tower is closed overnight, Cory said.

There are 42 towers that could be shut down overnight under the FAA proposal. That would save about $5 million a year, Pomeroy said.

''The cost savings are nominal,'' Pomeroy said. ''They say, well, there's not a lot of traffic in those hours. The important consideration in my belief is the 24-hour emergency dimension that having this capacity offers an airport.''

Keeping the tower open at all hours also is important for homeland security, Pomeroy said. The National Guard unit, known as the ''Happy Hooligans,'' is occasionally put on 24-hour alert, Becklund said.

The FAA put the Fargo tower on similar shutdown lists in 1993 and 1998.

''We took this very, very seriously the last two times as well and pushed back hard,'' Pomeroy said. ''But budget pressures are more intense now upon the FAA and every cost-cutting measure, no matter how ill-advised, is going to have a little more steam to it this time.''