FAA to delay tower closings

By The Mercury

The Federal Aviation Administration said Friday that it would delay closing the control towers at 149 airports — including the one at Manhattan Regional Airport — until June to allow for safety analyses and “to attempt to resolve multiple legal challenges.”

The closings had been planned as part of a $637 million spending reduction at the agency as required under the across-the-board budget cuts known as the sequester.

The towers identified for closing are at fields that handle mostly private planes, corporate jets, aviation schools and minimal airline traffic. The towers’ long-term fate is not yet clear. The FAA said that about 50 airport authorities and municipalities had indicated that if necessary, they would pick up the cost of running the towers themselves.

Previously, the FAA had said it would close the control towers in May. Manhattan city commissioners last week authorized city administrators to begin negotiating a contract with Midwest ATC to staff the airport’s control tower through September.

In a statement, Ray LaHood, the transportation secretary, said, “This has been a complex process and we need to get this right.”

‘‘Safety is our top priority,” he said. “We will use this additional time to make sure communities and pilots understand the changes at their local airports.”

In fact, pilots said that their concern was not so much landing and taking off without a tower — most small airports never had one in the first place — as becoming comfortable operating without one. At a “non-towered” airport, pilots are supposed to announce their intentions on a pre-established radio frequency, maintain a mental map of all the other traffic and then fly a set pattern, usually in a “U’’ shape, at an altitude of about 1,000 feet, with the last turn lining them up with the runway.

At an airport with a tower, a controller will assign them on a path that can involve turns or can be nearly straight in, with no need for a pilot to keep track of all the other traffic.

‘‘None of these towers are there by happenstance,” said Jamie Beckett, a flight instructor in Winter Haven, Fla., who has been teaching since 1991. “A risk was identified.”

The risk may be because of traffic volume or because of the mix of traffic. Beckett compared it to a school drive with “twenty kids on bicycles, fifty moms in SUVs and 12 school buses.”

‘‘You probably need somebody there to direct traffic,” he said.

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