Local airport control tower on list to close

Sequestration just hit close to home.

Williamsport Regional Airport Authority officials hastily were notified Monday that the airport’s air traffic control tower could close due to federal sequestration budget cuts.

Mark Murawski, authority chairman, said he found out from media reports and a Federal Aviation Administration website that indicated the air traffic control tower at the airport here could close.

Murawski said he is not sure when that may happen – if it does come to that – but added that the authority intends to ensure regular commercial and general aviation flights to and from the airport.

“We don’t know when they would phase out the control tower operations. It may be as soon as 30 days, but it may be longer than that,” he said.

The FAA compiled the list of air traffic control towers that may close across the country in response to a mandatory $600 million budget cut.

The tower are Williamsport Regional Airport is one of 239 nationwide slated to be closed, and one of six in the state. Other affected airports in the state on the list include Arnold Palmer Regional Airport, Latrobe; Capital City Airport, Harrisburg; Lancaster Airport, Lancaster; Northeast Philadelphia Airport, Philadelphia; and Reading Regional-Carl A. Spaatz Field, Reading.

In addition to the local airport, the Latrobe and Lancaster serve commercial airlines, according to Murawski.

“Whatever happens, the airport authority will ensure that there will be safe and secure airplane movements in and out of the airport,” Murawski said. “People should know that it’s still safe to fly.”

He added that the airport terminal and related businesses will continue to be open.

Murawski said the FAA made its decision based on the number of take-offs and landings at the airport.

“We’re assessing the impacts of this decision. It’s still premature to reveal exactly how we’re going to deal with the situation,” he said.

One option, according to Murawski, is to have what he called “advisers” who could assist pilots that require air traffic control assistance.

“There are people that can do this in an advisory kind of role,” he said.

The local air traffic control tower is operated by five contracted employees from Overland Park, Kan.-based Midwest Air Traffic Control, who service the tower daily from 6:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.

Local tower employees guide departures and landings and assist pilots as needed, but Murawski said control is handed off to the New York Center air traffic control center soon after planes leave the area. Local controllers assist pilots in the air within five miles of the airport, Murawski said.

He added that modern aircraft often do not necessarily require local air traffic controllers. Since the local tower was constructed in 1959, Murawski said “there have been great technical advances in aircraft.”

Murawski, who also is Lycoming County’s chief transportation planner, criticized the FAA’s decision for planning the closure of the local air traffic control tower. He said factors such as the area’s mountainous terrain and changeable weather conditions also should be considered.

He also chided those in power for not having more foresight on the situation.

“Sequestration was known for 18 months. It’s just plain wrong. Our airport should have received some notification from Washington, D.C.,” Murawski said. “It’s a lousy way to do business.”