By Dennis Seid/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – Tupelo Regional Airport’s air traffic control tower is among 173 scheduled to be closed nationwide in early April, as the FAA shuts off funding for those services.
The shutdowns, part of the Federal Aviation Administration’s move to cut its budget by $600 million as part of sequestration, affect mostly small- and medium-sized airports.
Other Mississippi airports on the list of suggested closures include Bay St. Louis, Columbus, Greenville, Jackson (Hawkins Field), Meridian and Olive Branch.
The FAA said it would review its list comprised of airports that have fewer than 150,000 total operations and fewer than 10,000 boardings.
The agency will consider keeping some towers open on a case-by-case basis, if the authorities can prove its tower closure would “adversely affect the national interest.”
Josh Abramson, executive director of Tupelo Regional, said the airport would remain open, but pilots will have to communicate with each other instead of relying on the airport tower to direct traffic.
“It’s a safety issue in that having a tower is like having a friend in the sky looking at everything,” he said.
Operations will be moving slower during poor weather without tower guidance, he said.
He also added that the majority of airports in the country are “uncontrolled,” meaning they have no air traffic control towers.
Tupelo did not have a tower until 2001.
Another impact is that the U.S. Air Force training aircraft from Columbus will be unable to stop in Tupelo for fuel because regulations prevent them from flying into airfields without control towers.
The FAA contracts its tower services to 251 airports across the country. By Sept. 30, 189 of them could be closed as the agency ends its funding to the program.
Abramson said flights will continue at Tupelo Regional. Silver Airways, which provides commercial air service to Atlanta, will be unaffected.
Operations for aircraft dismantling and recycling company Universal Asset Management, which lands retired jets as large as a 747, also will be unaffected, he said.
Five people work at the tower, which is open 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.
“They’ll be joining the unemployment line, unfortunately,” he said.
There is a possibility the tower could remain open, if the city were to decide to put the employees on its payroll.
Abramson said the FAA contractor pays its contractor in Tupelo about $42,000 a month – which covers salaries, insurance and overhead – for its five-person staff. Taking over the contract would cost $504,000 a year.
Abramson said the airport itself doesn’t have the money in its budget to absorb such an expense.
He said another option would be having a reduced schedule with one fewer tower employee, which would cost about $300,000 a year.