By Tina Alvey
Although still holding out hope that cooler heads will prevail in Washington and come up with a way to halt the threatened closure of air-traffic control towers across the country, the Greenbrier County Airport Authority has begun preparing for the worst.
The county-owned Greenbrier Valley Airport is on the Federal Aviation Administration’s list of 154 contract towers slated to close starting early next month.
“May 5 is our drop-dead date,” airport manager Jerry O’Sullivan advised the five Authority members who convened in emergency session Wednesday evening.
While O’Sullivan questioned the wisdom of the FAA’s decision to balance its budget at the expense of safety at small and mid-sized airports, he laid most of the blame on Washington politics.
“This is the sequester’s child,” he said of the threatened tower closure.
Without a tower, pilots flying into Greenbrier Valley would have to radio back and forth among themselves to coordinate arrivals and departures. O’Sullivan pointed out, however, if the tower is taken out of commission by the FAA, aircraft will no longer be required by law to have radios to use this airport, compounding the safety gap.
Authority President Lowell Johnson remarked, “This represents a danger to the passengers and the pilots who fly into this airport.”
O’Sullivan agreed, saying, “The experience level at this airport (tower) is very high, and it would be terrible to lose that.”
He added, “Aviation turns on tragedy. It seems ridiculous the FAA would make a decision that will most likely result in a tragedy.”
O’Sullivan said Greenbrier Valley Airport has had no accidents for 20 years, a fact that he attributes primarily to the skills of the air-traffic controllers who work in the tower.
“I’m totally committed to the tower,” he said.
The Authority members apparently concurred with O’Sullivan, approving a series of measures designed to ensure tower operations continue beyond the FAA’s “drop-dead” date.
They instructed the airport manager to implement his recommendations, which include soliciting competitive bids from various contract tower firms to get a bottom line on how much it will cost to keep Greenbrier Valley’s tower operational on a month-by-month basis, at least long enough to carry it through to the end of the FAA’s fiscal year, Sept. 30.
It costs approximately $600,000 a year to operate the tower under the current contract, according to O’Sullivan. That figure includes personnel expense, maintenance and insurance.
The airport — which is self-supporting and does not rely on county tax dollars — has an annual budget of around $3 million.
Also upon the instruction of the Authority, O’Sullivan will consult with Greenbrier County Prosecuting Attorney Patrick Via for advice on joining in a lawsuit filed by fellow members of the U.S. Contract Tower Association. The suit aims to get an injunction from a federal judge stopping the tower closures.
The FAA owns the control tower at Greenbrier Valley and has a contract with Midwest ATC to operate the facility. Ordinarily, four air-traffic controllers share the workload, but that number is now down to three, according to Jim Williams, the airport’s chief controller.
Williams and fellow air-traffic controller John Dowdy, who also attended Wednesday’s emergency meeting, both noted they have deep roots in the local community, having worked at Greenbrier Valley for decades.
“This is a career-ending event for us,” Williams told the Authority, noting that the widespread closure of contract towers would mean he, Dowdy and others would not be able to find work in their profession, as their age would prevent them from joining the FAA’s corps of controllers.
“This takes us completely out of the loop,” Williams said. “We’re done. We’re done.”
O’Sullivan assured the Authority and the controllers that if another contract tower company were to assume management of the Greenbrier Valley tower, the current controllers would undoubtedly be retained because of their experience and expertise.
The Authority will next meet April 15, at which time O’Sullivan hopes to have some answers from the prosecutor about the lawsuit and some hard numbers on the cost of keeping the tower open.
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