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Waukesha County Airport could lose air traffic control tower

Manager worries about safety

March 5, 2013

The potential of eliminating air traffic control towers did not sit well with Waukesha County Airport Operations Manager Kurt Stanich.

"It would be a huge blow to air traffic safety," Stanich said. "It's unfortunate, because they are essential."

Stanich said the workers in the control tower are "the communication" and "the eyes" for the ground and the pilot. It's a service provided by ground-based controllers who direct aircraft on the ground and through controlled air space.

More specifically, Stanich said these people "look at the grounds to make sure nothing is wrong whether it's low-visibility for poor weather, separation for aircrafts to prevent collisions and to organize the traffic as we have a wide mix of aircrafts at different speeds."

When he heard the Federal Aviation Administration is looking at shutting down control towers across the country in a plan for $600 million in cuts, he was more than disappointed.

"It seems like an unnecessary cut," Stanich said. "There are lower priority and lower-risk programs but they're taking away a high priority safety program."

This development is part of a potential $85 billion in federal spending cuts from March 1 to Sept. 30.

A number of federally-funded programs could be impacted, including 240 small- and medium-size airports - eight regional ones in Wisconsin that handle more business and private flights - that utilize air traffic control towers with fewer than 150,000 flight operations or 10,000 commercial operations per year.

Furloughs, the elimination of midnight shifts and the reduction of preventive maintenance and equipment provisioning and support for all National Airspace System equipment are also on the list for potential cuts.

But for an airport the size and use of Waukesha County, Stanich said the biggest impact is with the control tower. The airport has about 60,000 takeoff and landings per year.

Stanich said its control tower is part of a contract tower program, different from FAA towers, which are operated by FAA employees. More money is spent on those towers, he said.

"The FAA is looking at cutting 75 percent of contract towers, but the rest of the FAA is only taking a five to eight percent cut," Stanich said. "It's a disproportionate cut. To save money they came up with a contract towers program, but a lot of the employees are former FAA controllers so they're just as qualified and it's already cost effective."

If the cuts go into effect, six Waukesha County Airport workers would lose their jobs, Stanich said. Besides those immediate jobs, Stanich said there are other consequences.

"It has the potential to impact the amount of traffic that's coming into the airport," Stanich said. "Some companies won't allow them to come into facilities that don't have an active control tower.

"So there could be a reduction in traffic reduction and in fuel sales."

The Waukesha County Airport, 2525 Aviation Drive, is owned and operated by Waukesha County. The County Public Works Department is responsible for budgeting and oversight of the airport, and the airport management team functions as a division of this department, but is located on-site at the airport terminal building.

Allison Bussler, Waukesha County director of public works, said the county has been notified of the cuts for Waukesha County. She expected more information this week.

"It is a concern for us that we are looking into," said Bussler.

It was reported on Friday the FAA will begin the process of closing 168 towers April 1. As of Friday morning, Stanich said he was still waiting to hear the final verdict on his airport.

"We're in a wait-and-see game," Stanich said. "We received the potential closer list, so we're just waiting on the final word. We're confident that there are options and right now we're evaluating all our options. We'll see how it plays out but we feel that it's more of a scare tactic."

Even so, Stanich said the airport will survive.

"The pilots coming in are highly-trained," Stanich said, "so it's not the end of the world, but again, the tower provided a measure of safety for our airport."

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