WASHINGTON – The Federal Aviation Administration announced Friday that the air traffic control tower at Niagara Falls International Airport will remain open after all, in spite of an earlier announcement that it could fall prey to budget cuts.
Some 149 control towers at airports nationwide will go dark as of April 7, with their responsibilities generally shifted to other, larger airports. That’s 24 fewer shuttered control towers than the FAA originally planned.
The agency said it decided it was in the national interest to keep the Niagara tower and 23 others open. An airport’s national defense or homeland security role, its economic impact and its role in the transportation system were all factors that led the agency to change its mind about particular control towers, the agency added.
The fact that the Niagara tower serves the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station probably played a role in the FAA’s decision, said Rep. Chris Collins, R-Clarence.
“I’m just really pleased that they saw the value of keeping the control tower open,” said Collins, who pressed for the FAA to do just that.
The agency originally planned to move the Niagara control tower’s responsibilities to Buffalo Niagara International Airport, citing sequestration – the draconian automatic budget cuts that took effect March 1 – as the reason for the control tower cuts.
“The NFTA is pleased and thankful that the FAA has realized the significance of maintaining the control tower in Niagara Falls,” said Executive Director Kimberley A. Minkel, “as it relates to maintaining a positive and safe environment for commercial, private and military operations at the airport.”
All the towers being shut down are run by private companies, not the government as at larger facilities. Another 16 private towers will face 5 percent cuts.
“Unfortunately we are faced with a series of difficult choices that we have to make to reach the required cuts under sequestration,” Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in an email.
Advocates for pilots and airports said shutting the towers will harm safety and impose economic hardship on businesses such as flight schools that rely on controllers to guide planes.
“The White House does not understand the consequences of these actions, or they do and they simply do not care,” Craig Fuller, president and chief executive officer of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, a Frederick, Md.-based advocacy group, said at a town hall meeting Thursday at DuPage Airport in West Chicago, Ill. “Either way, this approach is dangerous and should not stand.”
New York is due to lose two towers, one at Ithaca Tompkins Regional Airport, the other at Griffiss International Airport in Rome.
Florida is set to lose 14 towers, the most of any state. They include facilities at Naples Municipal, Boca Raton and Ocala International airports, according to a list provided by the pilots’ association. Texas will lose 13 and California, 11.
Spencer Dickerson, executive director of the Contract Tower Association in Alexandria, Va., said it was unfair for the government to shut down more than half the 251 private towers while sparing government-run facilities. The association represents firms that run the towers.
“Controllers at contract towers perform a host of important functions, including separating aircraft, issuing safety and weather alerts, and assisting with military, emergency response, and medical flights,” Dickerson said.
Planes, including airliners, can continue to fly to airports without towers. Most of the roughly 5,000 U.S. public airports don’t have towers.
Instead of being guided by controllers, pilots radio each other to coordinate landings and takeoffs, according to the FAA.