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Tower to be staffed through fiscal year

By Corene Brisendine

City commissioners Tuesday unanimously authorized city administrators to begin negotiating a contract with Midwest ATC to staff the airport’s control tower through the end of the federal fiscal year.

The FAA had contracted with Midwest ATC to staff the Manhattan Regional Airport control tower for the 2012 fiscal year that ends in September. But the FAA recently announced it will end funding for the Manhattan tower, one of 149 airport towers affected nationally by sequestration reductions. FAA funding for the tower ends May 5; the city will fund the tower through September while an effort to identify a more permanent solution continues.

City manager Ron Fehr told commissioners that Tuesday night’s action did not finalize funding, which could amount to $162,000 and is proposed to come out of the general obligation reserve fund. Fehr said city staff would look at adjusting the number of controllers and times of operations that were more aligned with city needs.

While commissioners approved the measures, they still had concerns about funding the tower long-term.

Mayor Loren Pepperd said he hoped the city would obtain feedback from pilots and Fixed Based Operator airports that do not use control towers before making any decisions on funding the tower long-term. Currently, some of the city’s scheduled commercial air service uses the airport at times when the tower is not operational.

Commissioner Wynn Butler said he agreed to fund the tower in the short-term as it pertained to public perception of safety, but didn’t know if he was ready to fund it long-term without taking a “hard look” at what else could be done.

“It may not be necessary to keep controllers in the tower,” he said.

Fehr said other airports that had FAA funding pulled have filed legal challenges in the belief a safety analysis was not fully investigated by the FAA. He said the staff was looking into those challenges as well as the concerns raised by Pepperd and Butler.

Commissioner Jim Sherow said he fully supported the short-term continuance of the control tower and thought continuing to fund the tower after September was in the best interests of the city. He said the city needed to do everything in its power to ensure the highest level of air travel safety.

“We need to make sure we maintain the kinds of markets we have developed in Manhattan,” he said.

Sherow said if the city closes the tower; it might be more difficult to bring in more airlines, and might drive current and future customers to other airports in the region.

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