Safety concerns soar with scheduled closure

Of 2 N.J. airport control towers

Ted Sherman/The Star-Ledger

By Ted Sherman/The Star-Ledger

on March 10, 2013 at 6:30 AM, updated March 10, 2013 at 4:32 PM

TRENTON — The runways of Essex County Airport lie just 13 miles northwest of busy Newark Liberty International Airport.

Trenton-Mercer, not far from Princeton, boasts scheduled commercial jet service through Frontier Airlines, which recently announced additional flights aboard Airbus 319 aircraft to Atlanta; Chicago; Columbus, Ohio; Detroit, and Raleigh-Durham, N.C.

And next month, pilots using either airport will be pretty much flying by the seat of their pants. The towers that control both airports are slated to close — the latest victims of the federal sequestration budget cuts affecting critical government services across the country that for some people are now beginning to raise serious safety concerns.

The budget bomb created by the automatic cuts is already affecting government spending, from the military to the federal courts to the federally funded Head Start program — the result of a congressional impasse that seemed at first like a political bluff, but is now leading to hard decisions and, for some, growing questions about how much can be cut before the risk is too great.

Essex and Trenton-Mercer, which thread planes into some of the most congested skies in the nation, were among 200 airports throughout the country told their control towers would close in April, in an effort by the FAA to cut operations costs. In addition, the overnight shifts are being eliminated at 73 other medium-sized airports, including Atlantic City International Airport.

While the two airports will remain open to traffic, the elimination of the towers will put more responsibility in the hands of pilots, and could mean flight diversions at Trenton-Mercer during bad weather.

“It would be a real tragedy if it had an impact in the way Frontier looks at Trenton, or if people lost faith in the airport,” said Mercer County Executive Brian Hughes, who has seen a series of commercial airlines come and go over the years.

James Paganelli, executive director of the Essex County Improvement Authority, which operates the county’s general aviation airport in Fairfield, called a manned control tower a safety issue — especially with Newark Liberty, Kennedy International and LaGuardia traffic in and out of the region.

“Do I think we need the tower? Absolutely,” said Paganelli. “It benefits the airport and the safety of flight in and out of the airport.”

The tower closures were announced after the FAA had $600 million automatically slashed from its budget as part of the sequester cuts. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who ordered the shutdowns, targeted airports with fewer than 150,000 landings and departures each year, or 10,000 commercial landings and departures.

The FAA last week said it has not made a final determination which facilities will be shut.

But in letters that went out last week to airport managers with towers operated under contract, the agency said the only criteria it would use to keep a facility off the hit list would be a “negative impact on the national interest.”

The planned shutdowns have generated growing opposition in congress. Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R-2nd Dist.), who chairs the House Subcommittee on Aviation, sharply questioned the FAA’s position that it could not avoid furloughs and closings — including the towers in New Jersey. LoBiondo said the FAA has failed to provide financial data to his subcommittee demonstrating that it cannot absorb cuts from other parts of its operations account.

Rep. Rush Holt (D-12th Dist.), whose district includes Mercer County, said the airport in Ewing was a poor place to cut costs.

“I am calling the FAA to try to ensure that Trenton-Mercer’s control facility does not stay on any closure list,” Holt said. “This is the kind of pain that people all over the country are going to feel due to sequestration, and it is especially troubling because Trenton-Mercer is now coming into its own with greatly expanded service.”

Most of the airports in the United States actually operate without an air traffic control towers. Many others — including Trenton-Mercer and Essex County — are unstaffed overnight. Pilots at uncontrolled airports, instead of following the instructions of a controller, follow standard arrival and departure patterns, and announce their intentions over a common frequency.

But both Trenton-Mercer and Essex airports are in the shadows of major metropolitan airports, and have long had towers controlling takeoffs and landings because of the controlled airspace in the region. Even without manned towers, all aircraft arriving at and departing from the two airports will still need clearances from regional FAA approach control facilities because of the complicated flight patterns in and out of the area’s big airports, FAA officials said.

Robert Checchio, vice president of legislative affairs for the Mid-Atlantic Aviation Coalition, said Essex County Airport is close enough to Newark International to pose potential traffic conflicts between aircraft operating at the two airports. Essex has more than 200 small planes based there.

“Without an active control tower, departing aircraft are unable to learn about the presence of aircraft approaching or leaving Newark Liberty,” Checchio said. He said Newark’s controllers are unlikely to be happy about losing the assistance that the tower at Essex now provides.

Frontier officials say despite the threatened shutdown of the tower at Trenton-Mercer, they will not abandon their New Jersey base of operations. However, they acknowledge the loss of the tower could affect service in bad weather.

“It could negatively affect our operations when weather is poor, which could result in diversions to other airports,” said spokeswoman Kate O’Malley.

Frontier provides service out of Trenton-Mercer to Fort Lauderdale, Fort Myers, New Orleans, Orlando and Tampa. It has already announced it will expand those destinations in early April to include Atlanta, Chicago, Columbus, Detroit and Raleigh-Durham.

The airline has experience operating out of uncontrolled fields, now flying out of Durango, Colo., and Shenandoah Valley Regional Airport in Staunton, Va. Neither of these airports have air traffic control towers.

Hughes, who called the airport an important economic engine for Mercer County, has had meetings with state officials about trying to get a reprieve, but is not hopeful.

State transportation officials said only that the tower shutdown issue is an FAA decision, and that the state’s Division of Aeronautics has not been involved in any discussions.


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