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Control tower should be a priority

Airport essential for long-term growth

By The Mercury

We share the disappointment of Manhattan Regional Airport Director Peter Van Kuren that the airport’s control tower is among scores slated to lose federal funding in roughly two weeks as a result of the sequester.

We also share his optimism that the loss of funding for the tower — chiefly funding for the four air traffic controllers who staff the tower — doesn’t mean that the airport will cease to function. Far from it.

“The American Airlines service to Dallas and O’Hare, the contract to support military operations and university charters will all continue,” Mr. Van Kuren said.

He also noted that pilots can land and take off without control towers, but acknowledged that although a tower isn’t absolutely necessary, it is an added safety feature.

Even so, an American Airlines spokesman said it is premature to say what effect closing towers at regional airports would have on commercial flight service to them.

Control towers are important enough that just about any airport worth its salt has one. What’s more, given the efforts to upgrade Manhattan Regional Airport, finding a way to keep the tower operating is worth serious consideration.

Because the city owns the tower, that would be a decision for the City Commission. Despite its general support of the airport, commissioners might well balk at an additional investment of hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to staff the tower.

Having the city pick up the entire operating cost of the tower is one of the options Mr. Van Kuren will discuss with city officials. Air traffic controllers in Kansas City, Mo., earn about $120,000 a year. Given the lighter load in Manhattan — and the fact that air traffic controllers laid off elsewhere could be looking for jobs — perhaps the city could find qualified personnel for less money. Another possibility is hiring fewer than four air traffic controllers

At the other extreme is shutting the tower down and changing the airport’s status from one that’s operated by a control tower to one that isn’t. That’s an option the city should reject.

Sen. Jerry Moran was waxing partisan in criticizing the Obama administration and the Federal Aviation Administration’s decision to halt funding for 149 airport towers, but he nevertheless struck a chord when he compared removing control towers to removing stop lights and stop signs.

We don’t know whether the comparison is appropriate, but it certainly gives one pause.

The Manhattan Regional Airport is a source of pride for this community, and it’s an integral part of long-term growth plans not just for Manhattan but for our region. Keeping the control tower operating will keep our fine airport safer and thus should be a priority for the City Commission.

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