By NEMS Daily Journal
The imminent closure of the air traffic control tower at Tupelo Regional Airport, while surprising to the public, was virtually written in stone with the sequestration of the federal budget, which mandated economies in major categories.
Sequestration took effect a few days ago, and some of the impacts have begun flowing down.
Tupelo is among 173 towers at small-to-medium size airports nationwide – seven in Mississippi – on which the ax will fall in early April unless exceptions are granted for reasons involving national interests.
Stennis International in Bay St. Louis, Golden Triangle in Columbus, Mid-Delta in Greenville, Hawkins Field at Jackson, Key Field in Meridian and Olive Branch Regional also are on the list in Mississippi. Columbus’ tower is expected to remain open for at least a while longer because Golden Triangle has temporarily taken on some functions of Columbus Air Force Base while construction work continues at the base.
Jackson-Evers International Airport and Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport are not on the list. They are the largest and busiest commercial traffic airports in the state.
Josh Abramson, executive director at Tupelo Regional, said he does not expect Tupelo to qualify for an exception to closure because of a national interest.
It should be remembered that Tupelo has had a full-service control tower only since 2001, and it is under private-sector contract, not staffed by Federal Aviation Administration personnel.
Abramson correctly noted that Tupelo Regional can continue operations without the tower, including commercial service, but pilots will be required to assume some of the traffic control functions as they approach and drop below the 2,500 ceiling controlled by the FAA. Airplanes above the 2,500-foot ceiling will remain in the FAA’s control operations.
Abramson also said operations during inclement weather would be slowed.
The closure decision of course could be reversed were Congress and President Obama to reach an agreement on changing the sequestration which, in practical effect, mandates reductions in many federal agency operations, including the military.
Abramson has said nationwide patterns suggest airports like Tupelo, measured against the airline industry, likely faces severe challenges to continued commercial air service during the next five to 10 years. The tower closure, however, is driven by the federal budget issues, bipartisan in origin.
The FAA must cut $600 million in spending, and those reductions are falling in part on control tower operations and, it is expected, FAA employee furloughs.
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.
Tupelo’s City Council, airport authority and economic development interests obviously need to review the FAA’s actions, but in context local options appear severely limited.