Regional
7:42 pm
Fri March 22, 2013

Air Traffic Control Facilties in Owensboro, Paducah to Close Due to Budget Cuts

Two western Kentucky airports will close their air traffic control facilities in April after the Federal Aviation Administration on Friday mandated the shutdowns because of budget cuts.

Pilots flying into and out of Owensboro-Daviess County Airport in Owensboro and Barkley Regional Airport in Paducah will be responsible for keeping proper distance from each other while in the air and for their own safety during takeoffs and landings.

During bad weather, the FAA tower in Memphis, Tenn., will monitor the airspace around Paducah. The FAA tower in Evansville, Ind., about 34 miles away, will monitor Owensboro's airspace in rough weather.

The two control towers were among 149 hit with closure by the FAA, which is being forced to trim $637 million for the rest of the fiscal year that ends Sept. 30. Both the Owensboro and Paducah airports host commercial commuter airlines.

Each airfield will lose six contract workers who manned the towers when the cuts begin taking effect April 7.

"It's been a rough week," said Richard Roof, the manager of Barkley Regional Airport

Owensboro-Daviess County Airport Manager Bob Whitmer, whose air field hosts flights from Cape Air and Allegiant Air, said the commercial flights will continue.

Cape Air spokeswoman Trish Lorino said the airline's operation in Owensboro won't be affected but that passengers may experience delays of five to 10 minutes. Those delays would be due to procedures required by additional layers of safety and controls by the FAA and other agencies to ensure no disruption, she said. Hyannis, Mass.-based Cape Air has three flights a day from Owensboro, Lorino said.

But, Whitmer said, the closure puts Owensboro at a disadvantage in luring new businesses. The airport may get bypassed if a company wants to build aircraft maintenance or a cargo and shipping facility in the area.

"They like to go to airports that have control towers," Whitmer said.

Both airports are Class D facilities with the FAA, which means the air traffic control tower watched aircraft within five miles of the field up to 25,000 feet.

Roof said it takes about $500,000 annually to staff the control tower, which monitors between 32,000 and 33,000 flights annually, including private planes, SkyWest Airline flights and military flights. SkyWest flies two departures and incoming flights from Chicago's O'Hare Airport daily.

The loss of the tower will not impact those flights, Roof said.

"They will continue unabated," Roof said. "We do expect some irregular delays, most of which will be weather related."

Jessica Wheeler, a spokeswoman for St. George, Utah-based Allegiant Air, said the company's pilots are trained in visual flying, which allows them to fly safely in and out of uncontrolled air space.

"We are currently working with each of our airports on the closure list to ensure that we can continue service with little to no disruption," Wheeler said.

Owensboro, which at 8,000 feet has the third-longest runway in Kentucky, fielded about 35,000 flights in 2012, ranging from general aviation to commercial to military and instructional training.

Communities lobbied aggressively to keep some towers operating. Sens. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., and James Inhofe, R-Okla., proposed an amendment that would have restored $50 million to keep them open. The measure failed, much to Roof's disappointment.

"Candidly, this was a political decision," Roof said.

Whitmer was watching the politics of the cuts closely.

"There's been a lot of maneuvering," Whitmer said. "We're still hopeful that decision could get reversed."

Roof is now pouring through 250 pages of FAA manuals to determine what procedures must be altered at the airport when the tower closes down.

"We are really disappointed with the FAA's actions," Roof said.

Messages left for SkyWest were not immediately returned Friday.