Airport tower to stay open until at least September
County aviation board to get update on status Tuesday morning
Monroe County Airport's air traffic control tower, one of hundreds earmarked for closure by the federal government because of budget cuts, may not be on the chopping block just yet.
Unlike most of the other towers involved in the shutdown, Monroe County's control tower will remain open until at least the end of the U.S. government's fiscal year on Sept. 30. More than 170 of the towers contracted with the Federal Aviation Administration are set to close April 7.
The Monroe County Aviation Board of Commissioners will hear an update on the state of the airport's control tower Tuesday morning, though at this point, saving the tower will be up to the federal government, said airport director Bruce Payton.
"We're making every effort that we can to help the government see the importance of air traffic control," he said.
Federal funding pays 84 percent of the expenses for Monroe County's control tower, and the county covers the rest.
It would be difficult for the county to be able to fund the entire air traffic control tower, according to Geoff McKim, Monroe County Council president.
The aviation levy that provides funding for the airport is frozen, and if the county were to increase it, cuts would need to be made in other areas. The budget for the tower this year is $437,000, with only 16 percent of that coming from the county.
"We'd have to make corresponding cuts in things like the health department or capital funds; things that are very critical to the county," McKim said.
Even if the county did decide to take over funding for the air traffic control tower, it wouldn't go into effect until 2014.
Many air traffic control towers were officially told by the FAA last week when they could expect to close, and were given four days to send a reply explaining the national importance for keeping the control tower open.
Military leaders and Indiana University student athletes, speakers and researchers are among those that utilize the Monroe County Airport, according to Payton. Pilots with varying levels of experience also use the airport.
"Mixing those very fast and sophisticated engines in our air with pilots from the flight school — I don't feel we have maximum safety without air traffic control," he said.
Spencer Dickerson, executive director of the United States Contract Tower Association, said that one of the dangers with losing air traffic control towers is pushing extra responsibility onto pilots and other towers.
"You can lose focus from one thing to another," he said. "Air traffic controllers provide an extra set of eyes."
In November 2012, an audit by the U.S. Department of Transportation found that contract control towers, like Monroe County's, save taxpayers more money than other FAA towers, and also have a lower rate of safety incidents.
Dickerson said he was not sure why the towers were placed on the list of cuts, but that his association and others are working with Congress to try to save federal funding and keep the towers open. "We're deeply disconcerted and disappointed that they put these towers on the chopping block," he said.
Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kansas) has an amendment to the Senate Continuing Resolution, which should be introduced on the Senate floor today, that would block funding cuts to air traffic control towers.
Payton will be watching the amendment closely.
"The actual fate of all the air traffic control towers that were slated to close is up in the air right now," he said.
The tower of the Monroe County Airport can be seen in this photo from 2012. More than 170 of the towers contracted with the Federal Aviation Administration are set to close April 7, but Monroe County's control tower will remain open until at least Sept. 30. Monty Howell | Herald-Times file photo