By Tina Alvey
April Fool’s Day could be a sad holiday indeed for the four workers who man the control tower at Greenbrier Valley Airport, not to mention the travelers who rely on the services the air traffic controllers provide.
The Federal Aviation Administration is warning that federal budget cuts set to take effect Friday, barring congressional action, will force the closure of all but two of West Virginia’s air traffic control towers by April 1.
The FAA’s plan to shave $600 million from its budget would close 100 towers nationwide at airports with fewer than 150,000 flights a year.
While towers at airports in Morgantown and Charleston would remain open, West Virginia’s other five towers would close under the FAA proposal. In addition to Greenbrier Valley Airport, the state’s other towers threatened with closure are located in Bridgeport, Wheeling, Huntington and Parkersburg.
Greenbrier Valley Airport manager Jerry O’Sullivan said Monday, “We’re very, very concerned. The control tower is our most important aircraft safety measure.”
If the tower closes, pilots would have to coordinate their own landings and takeoffs among themselves, a strategy that is more likely to work at this time of year than any other, O’Sullivan noted.
“As a practical matter, we have low traffic in late winter; we’re down to less than 10 to 15 flights a day right now,” he said. “It would be more catastrophic in summer when we have upwards of 400 flights coming in some days during conventions.”
The airport in Maxwelton serves an area that includes The Greenbrier resort in nearby White Sulphur Springs, a popular convention site and home of the Greenbrier Classic PGA TOUR event, which attracts more than 100,000 people through the gates during a single week in July.
O’Sullivan emphasized that he no longer manages air traffic control operations, pointing out that for the past seven years, the tower has been managed under an FAA contract with a Kansas company.
“I’ve heard nothing directly from the FAA concerning this plan to close the tower,” O’Sullivan said. “But our airport organization is talking to them, and people are writing letters — especially the tower workers, because they don’t want to be out of a job.”
Currently, four air traffic controllers man the Greenbrier Valley tower from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., 365 days a year.
Beyond the local effort to influence the FAA’s decision, O’Sullivan said Sen. Jay Rockefeller and Rep. Nick Rahall are pursuing a solution, not only to the airport’s imminent problem but also to the overall budget impasse in Washington.
“Rockefeller is very, very supportive of this airport, and Rahall is as well,” O’Sullivan said. “They’re doing everything they can to help us.”
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