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Tower funding still up in the air

Reprieve buys commission time

By The Mercury

The Federal Aviation Administration’s decision to postpone until June 15 the closing of the control towers at 149 small airports is a modest dose of good news for Manhattan, whose airport, Manhattan Regional, is on the tower closing list. The FAA funding cutoff was to take effect Sunday.

The least the FAA’s move will do is save the city some money. That’s because the City Commission, which decided last Tuesday to pay to staff the tower though September, won’t have to begin paying as soon as it had expected to. City Manager Ron Fehr had estimated the cost of keeping the tower operating through September at $162,000.

City commissioners aren’t sure to what extent they’ll fund the tower beginning Oct. 1. Despite the expense, commissioners seem disinclined to compromise safety. That’s wise.

Unfortunately, adding a fee to tickets for passengers to help fund the tower, which sounded promising at first, is not possible because of a cap on ticket surcharges. As for adding a fee for parking, which has always been free, that’s already an option to pay for airport expansion.

The FAA is extending its funding of towers at small airports at least in part because of a number of legal challenges to its initial decision. The announced closings were part of the FAA’s $637 million in spending cuts required by across-the-board reductions associated with the sequester.

In announcing the decision to keep the towers open longer, Transport-ation Secretary Ray LaHood said, “We will use this additional time to make sure communities and pilots understand the changes at their local airports.”

The towers to be closed are at airports and air fields that handle mostly private planes, corporate jets, flight schools and minimal commercial airline traffic. Pilots are trained to land at airports without towers, and routines are established. One issue for pilots is reported to be adjusting their routines at airports that cease to operate towers.

“None of these towers are there by happenstance,” Jamie Beckett, a Florida flight instructor, told the Associated Press. “A risk was identified.”

But it apparently is a manageable risk. Commercial aircraft have landed at Manhattan when the tower was not staffed by air-traffic controllers. Moreover, American Eagle has told the city that it does not need the tower to continue operations in Manhattan.

In addition to weighing the safety risks and the costs, city commissioners must consider the potential impact of their ultimate decision on future commercial air service. City Commissioner Jim Sherow, who did not run for re-election, said, “We need to make sure we maintain the kinds of markets we have developed in Manhattan.”

In short, the new City Commission will have to decide whether maintaining and even expanding those markets is truly possible without considerable investment in the tower.

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