Wheeling airport tower to close

WHEELING – Wheeling-Ohio County Airport Manager Tom Tominack confirmed Friday the Federal Aviation Administration plans to close the air traffic control tower at his facility because of budget cuts.

It is on a list with 148 others that are expected to close starting early next month as a result of the federal budget sequester.

“We have to deal with the actions of the government. … I have not received any official word from the FAA about a timeframe,” Tominack said.

The closures will not force any of the airports to shut down, but pilots will be left to coordinate takeoffs and landings among themselves over a shared radio frequency with no help from ground controllers. Those procedures are familiar to all pilots.

Since a preliminary list of facilities was released a month ago, the FAA plan has raised wide-ranging concerns, including worries about the effect on safety and the potential financial consequences for communities that rely on airports to help attract businesses and tourists.

“We will work with the airports and the operators to ensure the procedures are in place to maintain the high level of safety at non-towered airports,” FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said in a statement.

Tominack said Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Rep. David McKinley, R-Wheeling, tried unsuccessfully to keep the Ohio County airport off the list.

Manchin previously said the FAA’s overall budget would be reduced by $600 million under the sequester, forcing the agency to shut down airport towers at facilities where there are fewer than 150,000 flights a year. About 38,000 flights were logged last year at the Wheeling-Ohio County Airport.

In a letter addressed to David Grizzle, chief operating officer of the Air Traffic Organization at the Federal Aviation Administration, Tominack asked that the local airport’s tower be taken off the list. He said without a tower, more runway incursions are likely to occur.

“During my 31-year aviation career I can cite on many occasions when incidents were only avoided due to (an air traffic controller) being at this location,” he said.

He also said the airport supports the National Guard and Armory that trains with Black Hawk helicopters. The airport also has a user agreement with the U.S. Air Force, which trains with C-130s nearly every day using the tower as part of its training. The airport also hosts the Army Reserve Center for the 463rd Engineers.

The FAA is being forced to trim $637 million for the rest of the fiscal year that ends Sept. 30. The agency said it had no choice but to subject most of its 47,000 employees, including tower controllers, to periodic furloughs and to close air traffic facilities at small airports with lighter traffic. The changes are part of the across-the-board spending cuts known as sequestration, which went into effect March 1.

The airports targeted for tower shutdowns have fewer than 150,000 total flight operations per year. Of those, fewer than 10,000 are commercial flights by passenger airlines.

The 149 air traffic facilities slated to begin closing on April 7 are all staffed by contract employees who are not FAA staffers. There were 65 other facilities staffed by FAA employees on the preliminary list of towers that could be closed.