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Tower expected to remain open into the fall

By Corene Brisendine

The city is expected to keep its air traffic control tower operating through September, although commissioners Tuesday put off a final decision on how to do that until the April 2 commission meeting.

Discussion of what to do with the air traffic control tower was added at the last minute to Tuesday night’s city commission agenda after the Federal Aviation Administration announced it was pulling funding.

Mayor Loren Pepperd said that even though the city has not determined how the contract covering the air traffic controllers would be funded, it would continue to operate through the end of this fiscal year, which is until the end of September.

City manager Ron Fehr said the city could pay the controllers’ contract in a variety of ways, one being taking money from reserve funds. It was also suggested that the city consider using economic development funds from its portion of the recently continued half-percent sales tax.

Cost questions

During the discussion, airport director Peter Van Kuren said the city had several options for funding sources, but closing the tower was not a viable one.

He said the FAA will provide guides to airport staff on how to transition from funded towers to either no tower or local governmental funding. He said if the city decides to fund the controllers locally, the FAA will be willing to extend funding until it is able to take over. Van Kuren emphasized that if an extension is granted, it would extend funding by weeks, not months. He also said the city could either staff the tower with city employees or contract the services out like the FAA had done. Van Kuren said it would be better to seek contracts for those services. Another option the city could look into is seeking help from workers at Fort Riley. He said Marshall Field may be able to provide tower support to landing aircraft.

Van Kuren and commissioners discussed landing fees as a source of partial funding. He said the landing fees were relatively low and could be raised, but warned the fees should not be raised to the point that private planes choose to land at other nearby airports such as Junction City or Salina. Commissioners also asked about using passenger facility charges or baggage handling fees, but Van Kuren said those were not under local governmental control.

Commissioner Wynn Butler suggested the city seek help from the region.

“We have a lot of people behind this ‘regionalism,’ and we call it the Manhattan Regional Airport,” he said. “Is there anyone out there willing to supplement the cost in the region?”


Safety questions

Van Kuren said the community would suffer in several ways if the tower was closed. He said recent 65 percent increases in military air traffic passing through the airspace could pose a danger to civilian craft, which would also be in greater jeopardy of flying into the artillery range’s “no fly zone.” Jerry Kramer, air traffic manager for the tower, said all the staff at the airport understands the importance of keeping the planes out of the impact zone when artillery is firing.

“You can feel and hear the impacts of the artillery in the tower all day,” he said.

Another factor was the efficiency of planes landing and taking off during peak times, notably on Kansas State University football game days. Van Kuren said with no air traffic controllers, it would be left up to the pilots to make takeoff and landing decisions. Also, in landing larger aircraft, he said there was a concern of those planes using parts of the airfield that were not designed to handle the load. The ground crews would in essence have to have a “follow-me” truck sitting on the runway guiding the larger aircraft to where it needed to taxi. Concerns related to weather and wildlife were also raised.


Unresolved factors

The decision to wait until next week to settle the question was influenced by several factors.

One was Van Kuren’s announcement that the FAA will not pull funding for the tower until May 5, and another was the city’s opportunity to apply for a brief extension.

Van Kuren also said the staff had just finished negotiations to add another airline servicing the airport, which already handles American Eagle flights to and from Dallas and Chicago. He said the airline might not be willing to follow through with that contract, which amounted to $1 million, if the tower is closed.

The other major concern commissioners had was public perception of the airport if the tower should close. Van Kuren noted that two early morning American Eagle flights already depart and one late evening flight already arrives while the tower is closed.  But he said the tower gives passengers the perception that the airport is safer. Van Kuren said the tower currently operates from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily.

Commissioner Jim Sherow and Butler agreed that keeping the airport control tower open wasn’t necessarily for safety, efficiency or security, but more for public perception.

Commissioners and staff said they had all fielded several calls from various people who had decided to fly into Kansas City or other airports because of concerns over the tower closing. Sherow said if the city did not act now, it not only risks losing those air travelers, but also might have a hard time building public confidence back up.

In an unrelated item, commissioners unanimously approved putting the airport expansion out to bid. The plan is to apply for FAA discretionary funding that would cover up to 80 percent of the airport expansion; the remaining 20 percent would be funded by the city.

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