The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

April 12, 2013

Traffic jam

Closing airport control towers a dangerous way to save money

— Ever drive up to an always-busy intersection only to find that the traffic lights were inoperable?

A usually organized process turns into confusion and sometimes borders on chaos. And you hold your breath, hoping no one has an accident.

Now, take it up several notches.

Air traffic control tower operators direct aircraft both on the ground and in the surrounding airspace.

They’re essential in not only preventing collisions, but also providing support to incoming and outgoing pilots. But it has apparently been decided that they’re expendable.

Last month, the FAA announced that 189 contract control towers nationwide were being proposed for closure to help achieve the 5 percent reduction in spending called for in the federal budget sequestration process.

One of the airports scheduled to be affected is Greenbrier Valley Airport.

The Maxwelton airport hosts daily commercial commuter flights as well as numerous private aircraft. It is the closest facility to The Greenbrier resort. With the National Boy Scouts Jamboree and the Greenbrier Classic golf tournament coming up in July, the airport’s busiest part of the year is quickly approaching. The airport sees as many as 400 flights on its busiest days.

This scenario cannot be left for pilots to navigate on their own, without the assistance of a tower.

One temporary solution to the imminent threat of the tower’s closure hinges on coming up with the estimated $250,000 it will take to fund the air-traffic control facility until Oct. 1, when the Federal Aviation Administration’s new fiscal year begins.

“Hopefully, the budget crisis can be worked out by then,” said Greenbrier Valley Airport manager Jerry O’Sullivan. He has also recently assured, “The airport will not close,” at a Greenbrier County Commission meeting.

O’Sullivan said rumors had begun in the community about the possibility that the FAA’s decision to close the facility’s control tower would result in the loss of the local airport, but nothing could be further from the truth.

He also noted that the Raleigh County Memorial Airport has no control tower and yet has regular flights in and out by the same commercial carrier — Silver Airways — that serves Greenbrier Valley.

Raleigh County has been proactively seeking “virtual” towers and even invested in research for some time now. It could very well be on the cutting edge of technology when it’s needed most.

Perhaps the virtual towers can be implemented at Greenbrier Valley in the future, using the technology already being demonstrated. If so, it should be a part of the planning.

Compromising the lives of air travelers shouldn’t ever be part of the equation in budget cuts, sequester or not.

Our hope is that Raleigh and Greenbrier Valley airports will avoid cuts that would hinder their operations.

Our airports are a very important key to tourism, our economy and the further development in southern West Virginia.

And risking safety is no way to address budget issues.