March 10--BETHALTO -- Officials at St. Louis Regional Airport are planning to appeal the Federal Aviation Administration's decision to close the airport's contract tower next month.
Airport Manager David Miller said the strategy is to file a request asking the FAA to reverse its decision to shut down the contract tower on April 7 because of its national interest.
"We believe the airport has national interest in place because it provides training (facilities) for Scott Air Force Base," he said.
The appeal asking to stop the shutdown must be filed by March 13.
The federal government announced last month that it planned to trim $600 million from its budget, which meant shutting down air traffic control towers across the nation. The FAA announced last week it would be closing 173 contract towers at small and medium-sized airports next month and another 16 at the end of September.
Spenser Dickerson, head of the Contract Tower Association, said FAA officials gave him the news, capping off a five-day period in which the FAA first told contractors they would close scores of towers, then backtracked on the news.
"We're extremely discouraged and disappointed that the FAA is taking this action," Dickerson said. "The rest of the FAA's budget is getting a 5 percent haircut; the contract towers are getting a 75 percent cut, because the FAA is cutting 189 of the 251 contract towers."
Dickerson said it's hard to see fairness in the budget cuts
"It seems the contract tower program is taking a high, disproportionate cut," he said. "We have serious concerns about the safety, efficiency and loss of jobs in almost 150 communities across the country."
The FAA said it would consider removing individual towers from the list on a case-by-case basis, if the operators can explain why it is in the national interest to keep them open, Dickerson said.
"We know it's a long shot, but we are the only airport in the region where Air Force pilots can train," Miller said.
Miller said the tower closure does not mean the airport's closure. He said aircraft can land without air traffic control help.
Pilots will use radio communication on the Common Traffic Advisory Frequency, Miller said.
"The airport was already closed from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m., and pilots used CTAF," he said. "This just changes what goes on during the day."
Miller said the tower closure isn't so much about an operational problem but more of a risk management one.
Approximately 70,000 flights come into the airport annually. St. Louis Regional handles commercial aircraft, supports traffic from Scott Air Force Base and is a reliever airport for Lambert-St. Louis International Airport.
Miller said there also were concerns the shutdown could put the airport at a competitive disadvantage.
He said airport tenants told him the tower's closure would not have an impact on any business.
"We were concerned they might not want to stay," Miller said. "It's not the case. West Star Aviation is planning a $5 million project to build a new 40,000-square-foot hangar, and (the tower shutdown) could have impacted that decision. However, we discovered they plan on going through with the venture."
He said that operating an airport without a tower would not be a problem for him.
"I've managed two airports that did not have towers," he said. "I'm comfortable with it."
Dickerson said contract towers are carrying the brunt of the cuts, despite having comparable safety records and being more cost-efficient.
According to a 2012 audit report from the U.S. Department of Transportation, Office of the Inspector General, the average cost to operate a contract tower in 2010 was about $537,000, compared with $2.03 million to operate a similar FAA tower.
The FAA will finalize its closings list by March 18.
The Associated Press contributed some information for this article.
Copyright 2013 - The Telegraph, Alton, Ill.
As part of the agency’s sequestration implementation plan, the FAA will begin a four-week phased closure of the 149 federal contract towers beginning on April 7.
It will delay the closures of all 149 federal contract air traffic control towers until June 15.
According to the Associated Press, automatic federal budget cuts could shut down control towers at as many as seven Mississippi airports.