Jobs, safety a concern for tower employees in Tupelo

By Dennis Seid/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – Despite a temporary reprieve, Doug Metz and his four co-workers still face unemployment.
Metz is the air traffic control manager at Tupelo Regional Airport, where the tower is among 149 across the country being closed by the Federal Aviation Administration on June 15.
The first 24 closures originally had been planned for today, with the rest phased in over the next four weeks, but on Friday the FAA pushed the date back.
The agency said it needed more time to review lawsuits over the closures and some communities’ plans to fund the towers on their own.
Across the country, 251 air traffic control towers are run by private contractors paid by the FAA.
But sequestration has forced the agency to slash its budget by $600 million, and the contract tower program’s funding took a significant cut. It costs the FAA about $500,000 a year for each tower, and the program costs about $140 million annually.
The Tupelo tower was to have gone dark on May 5. But Metz and his colleagues will get another six weeks to contemplate their future.
“I’m happy – I think it’s a good thing and that it will give them more time to study to see the impact,” Metz said.
An air traffic controller with more than 30 years of experience, Metz has been working in Tupelo since the tower first opened in 1999.
“I’ve been here for nearly 14 years, when the first tower was nothing more than a deer stand,” he said. The current four-story tower was built in 2002.
“We all have families here,” Metz said. “My daughter lives here, and I have a grandson. … the others have homes here, too. There’s 140 years of experience, but what are we going to do when it closes?”
Metz and his co-workers have other concerns, however: the safety of the community and the area when tower operations cease.
“The general public doesn’t realize how busy this airport is,” he said. “Commercial aviation – the airline – gets the headlines. But so much more goes on with the military, corporate, charter. … It’s a lot busier than people think.”
Last year, Tupelo Regional Airport had more than 51,000 operations. One operation is recorded when an aircraft takes off and lands. Two operations (one landing and one taking off) is recorded for each low approach below the air traffic pattern altitude, a stop-and-go or a touch-and-go.
Through the first three months of this year, the airport had recorded more than 13,000 operations.
Metz isn’t trying to panic the public, but he says the tower serves a very important role.
“At any time, you could have a medical helicopter going to the hospital, a corporate jet coming in. … we could have a 747 coming,” he said. “Everything in an aircraft happens fast, and we’re there to help. We’re a safety net.”
Only about 10 percent of the nation’s 5,000 public airports have control towers. Nearly half of those are contract towers, handling about 30 percent of air traffic.
Where there are no towers, pilots communicate among themselves and coordinate takeoffs and landings.
The FAA says safety will not be compromised by the tower closures.
Still, even smaller airports like Tupelo need a tower, supporters say.
Jerry Webb, whose self-named Flying Service provides agricultural spraying across the region, is an ardent proponent of keeping the tower open.
That wasn’t the case 14 years ago.
“I’ll be the first to tell you I didn’t like it,” he said. “But I don’t want it to close. Every pilot I talk to wants a tower. There’s not anybody I know who flies into Tupelo who doesn’t want it. It’s a valuable asset.”
Webb said the tower is much like having a friend looking over his shoulder. Often flying low, watching for obstacles and popping up from a tree line, Webb concentrates hard on his surroundings. While he is listening to what other pilots in the air are doing, he knows the tower is watching out for him, too. “It’s like the difference between having a four-way stop and having a traffic light,” Webb said.
“I’m not saying that it’s unsafe without a tower, and I’m not saying it’s dangerous. But I would say it’s less safe without the tower. It’s like having a traffic cop.”
Metz has been lobbying elected officials from the local to federal levels, imploring them to retain funding for the contract towers in some way. Webb said he and other pilots are doing what they can, too. And they’re encouraging the public to do so as well.
“We’re willing to work smaller shifts, whatever we need to do,” Metz said. “We think it’s that important.”
dennis.seid@journalinc.com