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COMMENTARY: FAA’s decision values money over lives

A passenger jet departs Tuesday from General Mitchell International Airport in Milwaukee. The FAA is closing the air traffic control towers at eight small Wisconsin airports, and considering the elimination of the overnight shifts at 72 airport towers, including Mitchell. (Staff photo by Kevin Harnack)

When the witching hour is upon us April 21, an FAA decision to completely or partially close as many as 221 air traffic control towers could prove to be disastrous.

As part of across-the-board spending cuts known as sequestration, the FAA must trim $637 million for the rest of the fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30. To comply with those cuts, the agency is closing 149 towers and considering the elimination of overnight shifts at 72 airports, including General Mitchell International Airport in Milwaukee.

Eight small Wisconsin airports — Eau Claire, Janesville, Kenosha, La Crosse, Mosinee, Oshkosh, Waukesha and Milwaukee’s Timmerman — are among the 149 towers that will begin closing April 7.

If the FAA darkens Mitchell’s tower during the overnight shift, pilots of the roughly 20 flights from midnight to 5 a.m. will have to coordinate over the radio with other pilots their approaches, takeoffs and landings, said Pat Rowe, a General Mitchell Airport spokeswoman.

“Pilots are trained to operate in uncontrolled air space,” she said, “and communicate with each other instead of communicating with an air traffic control tower.”

While hundreds of small U.S. airports routinely operate without a controller’s extra set of eyes, the FAA’s decision only increases the likelihood of a devastating accident.

The decision baffles Milwaukee County Supervisor Pat Jursik, who represents the 8th District, including four cities surrounding Mitchell. It’s “totally unacceptable,” she said, for the federal government to close air traffic control towers like it’s “closing a park.”

“This isn’t just about passenger safety,” she said. “We’re talking about safety on the ground. Mitchell is in a very densely populated area. Timmerman is completely surrounded by residential area.”

Jursik isn’t the only one concerned. Paul Rinaldi, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, told The Associated Press that cutting down a vital safety net during the most critical stages of flight is akin to removing stop signs or traffic lights from city streets.

“A pilot is now going to have that extra duty of making sure that everybody seems to be doing the right thing on a crowded” radio frequency, he said.

Although the FAA has yet to make a decision on whether to eliminate the overnight hours at Mitchell’s air traffic control tower, Jursik is scrambling to find ways to keep it open. One avenue she is exploring is replacing the FAA staff with privately contracted controllers. Another is asking that the FAA delay its decision to allow the County Board to find another way to pay for the service.

“I’m hoping we can get an extension from the FAA so we can figure this out,” Jursik said. “I do not want to see Mitchell or Timmerman have planes take off without someone in the tower.”

The Central Illinois Regional Airport in Bloomington-Normal is taking it a step further. It’s suing the FAA, alleging that its plans to cut spending for air traffic control violate the National Environmental Policy Act. The federal law requires a review of environmental and socioeconomic factors before making major changes to airports.

Its airport authority is so concerned about the potential hazards that it is prepared to keep the tower open and pay for the $500,000 annual bill, The Pantagraph of Bloomington reported Friday.

The consequences are far greater than leaving a black mark on the world’s safest aviation network. The slightest mistake could haunt families who live, work and drive near American airports.

Jeff Cota is copy editor of The Daily Reporter. He can be contacted at 414-225-1825 or at jeff.cota@dailyreporter.com.


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