INDIANAPOLIS – Air traffic control towers in Gary and Columbus that were slated to close this month are among those that received a temporary reprieve Friday from the Federal Aviation Administration.
Gary-Chicago airport in northwest Indiana and Columbus Regional Airport south of Indianapolis were among 149 airports where towers had been scheduled to close beginning this weekend due to automatic federal spending cuts. The FAA has delayed the closures until mid-June, because of legal challenges filed to keep them open.
Gary-Chicago airport director Steve Landry and Columbus Regional Airport director Brian Payne both said the two-month delay gives them more time to consider how to respond.
“We were in the process of exploring all our options for the tower here in Gary,” Landy said. “I see this as gaining some time to continue working through those options.”
About 50 airport authorities and other “stakeholders” have indicated they want to fund the operations of the towers themselves rather than see them shut down, and that is one option both Indiana airports plan to consider. How to go about doing that, however, is an open question, Landry said.
Landry said the airport got word Tuesday it would be able to lease tower equipment – ranging from radar to telephones – from the FAA, but hadn’t determined how such a system would actually work.
Payne said the airport in Columbus, about 40 miles southeast of Indianapolis, was looking at various methods of staffing its control tower, including hiring a contractor to operate the tower or making air traffic controllers city employees.
Going without a tower is another option, Payne said.
Neither airport’s tower operates overnight. During those hours, pilots have to to coordinate takeoffs and landings among themselves over a shared radio frequency with no help from ground controllers. If the towers are closed, the pilots will have to fly that way all the time.
The first 24 tower closures were scheduled to begin Sunday, with the rest coming over the next few weeks. Obama administration officials have said the closures are necessary to accomplish automatic spending cuts required by Congress.
Airport operators in several states and the U.S. Contract Tower Association, which represents the companies that operate towers run by private contractors, have filed lawsuits in Washington seeking to halt the closures.
The suits contend the closures violate a federal law meant to ensure major changes at airports do not erode safety, and unfairly targeted the program for an outsized share of the more than $600 million the FAA is required to trim from its budget by the end of September.
All of the airports targeted for tower shutdowns have fewer than 150,000 total flight operations per year. Of those, fewer than 10,000 are commercial flights by passenger airlines.
Airport towers are prized by local communities as economic boosters, particularly in rural areas. Airlines are sometimes reluctant to schedule flights To airports where there are no on-site air traffic controllers.