Airport sues over tower closure
By LYNNETTE HINTZE/The Daily Inter Lake | Posted: Wednesday, April 3, 2013 10:00 pm
The Flathead Municipal Airport Authority that owns and operates Glacier Park International Airport has asked a federal court to reverse the Federal Aviation Administration’s recent decision to close Glacier’s air-traffic control tower because of sequestration budget cuts.
The local authority, along with the Friedman Memorial Airport Authority in Hailey, Idaho, filed a lawsuit Friday in the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, petitioning the court to review the FAA’s decision to withdraw the money necessary to operate the local control tower. Attorneys have asked the FAA to postpone closing the local tower until the court can review that decision.
The FAA decided to close air-traffic control towers at 149 small and midsize airports in response to congressionally mandated sequestration and a need for the FAA to cut $637 million from its $16 billion budget.
But, rather than make an across-the-board cut throughout the entire agency budget as some federal agencies have done, the FAA chose to cut air-traffic services at some airports entirely and furlough personnel at towers across the country.
Glacier Park International’s tower is on the list of closures and is scheduled to shut down May 5.
“The FAA did not consider any local site-specific operational realities or the impact on nationwide air traffic operations,” Glacier Airport Director Cindi Martin said.
The lawsuit argues that having a working tower at the local airport provides an added layer of safety and confidence on a year-round basis that is important to preserve.
“Given the amount of commercial and private aircraft traffic in the nation’s skies, we are unwilling to accept any backtracking on safety,” Martin said.
The closure of the local control tower won’t affect airport operations. Glacier Park International tower is open from 8 a.m. to midnight, so the airport already operates with uncontrolled air space outside of that time frame.
Aircraft are tracked by the Salt Lake City airport radar system until they enter Glacier Park’s five-mile airspace. When the tower closes, pilots will use visual flight rules as they did in pre-tower days, Martin said.
The lawsuit filed by the Flathead and Friedman authorities is one of a number of similar suits filed by airports across the country that face control tower closures.
Airports losing their towers averaged 54,000 flights in 2011, the most recent year for which FAA statistics are available, according to Bloomberg News.
The American Association of Airport Executives and its affiliate organization, the U.S. Contract Tower Association, sent a letter on Tuesday to FAA Administrator Michael Huerta, asking for an immediate administrative stay of the agency’s decision to close the 149 control towers until the various circuit courts of appeal can review the decision. The associations contend the decision is not based on substantial evidence and is arbitrary and capricious.
“Nothing exists in the Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act … that mandates this draconian outcome,” Kenneth Quinn, an attorney for the associations, said in the letter to Huera. “With 251 towers in the program, the proposed closure represents a nearly 60 percent reduction in the contract tower program, which far exceeds the 5 percent cuts being implemented in other areas of the FAA’s budget. No justifiable reason exists to single out the contract tower program and make it the Administration’s poster child for sequestration cuts.”
Quinn also pointed out the FAA didn’t undertake any environmental assessment of the impact of closing the towers, such as shifting noise and air quality over areas not previously impacted. The associations further allege the loss of controlled airspace could add more than 13,500 flight hours a year, resulting in delays, increased fuel consumption, and productivity losses.
Features editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or by email at lhintze.
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