The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

April 2, 2013

Justice dismayed over potential loss of control tower at Greenbrier Valley Airport

By Tina Alvey
Register-Herald Reporter

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS — The fortunes of The Greenbrier resort and Greenbrier Valley Airport have been inextricably linked for decades.

When The Greenbrier sank into bankruptcy four years ago and corporations started looking elsewhere for sites to hold their conventions, many wondered how the small airport would survive the loss of thousands of flights a year.

The tables are turned now, with the clock ticking off the hours until the “drop-dead” date for the airport’s air-traffic control tower — victim of a federal budget impasse. Unless an 11th-hour fix is found, Greenbrier Valley’s tower will be shuttered May 5, leaving pilots to coordinate takeoffs and landings among themselves at the same time that the airport — and the resort — enter their busiest season.

“It’s terribly unfortunate for the resort,” said Jim Justice, the man who pulled The Greenbrier out of bankruptcy. “We spent a lot of money to provide jobs for a lot of people, and we relied on the airport being there and being viable in doing so. This is very detrimental to the resort.”

The inconvenience and potential financial ramifications for The Greenbrier, its guests and, by extension, its employees aren’t Justice’s only concerns, however.

“From the perspective of someone that loves this state, loves West Virginia, I just hate this (situation),” he said. “This rural airport serves a lot of families, and (closing the tower) is going to hurt them, too. People need this airport and the services it provides to them.

“I guess you could say I hate it twofold — both for what it means for the resort and what it means to the community. I’m just devastated by the news.”

According to airport manager Jerry O’Sullivan, The Greenbrier is responsible for an estimated 60 percent of Greenbrier Valley’s air traffic on an annual basis.

In a March 13 letter to the FAA’s chief operating officer, J. David Grizzle, O’Sullivan listed many factors in trying to persuade the agency to reconsider the decision to close Greenbrier Valley’s tower.

Among those factors were conferences at The Greenbrier attended through the years by captains of industry and highly placed government officials, including governors, vice presidents and presidents. O’Sullivan also mentioned the annual Greenbrier Classic PGA tournament, which he described as “an international event with large numbers of jet aircraft requiring an active tower to maintain separation and safety of flight.”

According to Jim Williams, chief air-traffic controller at Greenbrier Valley, although on average only 50 to 60 aircraft use the airport daily during the Classic, many of those are corporate jets that may bring in as many as six to eight loads of passengers each in a single day.

Justice acknowledged, “Naturally, (closing the tower) will adversely affect the Greenbrier Classic.”

But The Greenbrier’s owner expressed little interest in a temporary stop-gap solution to the tower issue that had been tossed around during a meeting of the Greenbrier County Airport Authority last week. In that meeting, it was suggested that even if the FAA goes through with the planned shut-down, controllers could be hired on a short-term basis to man the tower during the Classic.

“I try to look beyond what’s good in the short term,” Justice said in a telephone interview Monday with The Register-Herald.

He said he has had “limited conversations” on the situation with Greenbrier President and managing director Jeff Kmiec, who is a member of the county Airport Authority.

“I believe they’re trying to work on a solution for the long term rather than the short term,” Justice said, noting that no one has approached him personally about the options being considered to try to keep the tower open.

O’Sullivan said Monday that he is proceeding with research on various solutions to the tower problem, including conferring with legal counsel on the possibility of participating in one of many lawsuits that have already been filed against the FAA by other small to midsized airports affected by the budget cuts.

“At least five separate suits have now been filed,” O’Sullivan pointed out. “Not all have the same basis, but at least one asks (the court) for an injunction (against) the FAA that would force them to continue funding the towers while the suit is resolved.”

He said he expects to report to the Airport Authority on its legal options at an April 15 meeting.

“I hope (the FAA) gives us a chance to choose where the money can be saved,” O’Sullivan said, noting that a $16 million expenditure of federal funds that was made four or five years ago to extend the overrun length on Greenbrier Valley’s already-long runway could have instead gone toward keeping the tower open for an additional 30 years.

“Given the choice between what they spent the money on and the tower, we would choose the tower,” he said. “Let’s make the decision on the whole pie, not just one piece.”

— E-mail: talvey@register-herald.com