Air traffic control towers at four airports in Oklahoma will close starting in April because of across-the-board budget cuts, the Federal Aviation Administration said Friday.
The cuts affect contractors that operate towers at Wiley Post Airport in Oklahoma City; the University of Oklahoma Westheimer Airport in Norman; Lawton-Fort Sill Regional Airport; and Stillwater Regional Airport.
Enid's Woodring Regional Airport, which had been on a list the agency circulated in early March for possible cuts, will remain open. The Enid airport control tower was one of 24 identified by the FAA as being in the “national interest.”
In all, the FAA will close 149 towers operated by contractors across the country. The agency kept 16 federal contract towers open under a “cost-share” program, including the tower at Ardmore Municipal Airport. Those contract towers are funded by statute and are not subject to the across-the-board cuts required by sequestration.
Karen Carney, spokeswoman for Oklahoma City's three airports, said airport officials haven't received any direction from the FAA on how to integrate Wiley Post's tower closure into their operations. The city's airport authority also operates Will Rogers World Airport and C.E. Page Airport.
“This is truly unprecedented for the FAA to close these towers right now,” Carney said. “Besides the list of towers, FAA hasn't given airports any other direction. ... It's not that the airport would shut down, but we may lose traffic because of it.”
Carney said existing procedures for pilots to deal with landing and taking off at airports without air traffic control towers may not be enough to ensure adequate safety at an airport like Wiley Post, which handles aircraft from corporate jets to single-engine training planes.
“Wiley Post is designated as a reliever airport to Will Rogers,” Carney said. “It takes a lot of smaller aircraft out of the mix from the large commercial aircraft.”
Dan Ohnesorge, airport director for Enid Woodring Regional Airport, said the FAA determined his airport was an essential part of the mission for nearby Vance Air Force Base. Woodring has about 18,000 flight operations per year, including takeoffs, landings and low approaches, he said.
“If the tower would go away, Vance's mission would be very restricted,” Ohnesorge said. “The Oklahoma (congressional) delegation got behind us, but we are fortunate we have Vance Air Force Base.”
Ohnesorge said he doesn't understand the FAA's rationale for closing contract towers at four Oklahoma airports. Stillwater and OU's Westheimer airport handle charter flights, including Boeing 757s, for university functions and athletic events. Lawton-Fort Sill has commercial service and helps with training missions for nearby Sheppard Air Force Base in Wichita Falls, Texas.
“I can't imagine trying to land a 757 without a control tower,” Ohnesorge said of closing the tower in Stillwater.
Carney said larger airports such as Oklahoma City's Will Rogers are bracing for cuts, too. The FAA earlier said it may cut overnight hours for FAA-staffed control towers. That could affect insurance rates for commercial carriers and air service at the airport, she said.
The FAA said it had to cut $637 million as a result of the federal budget sequestration, roughly 5 percent of the agency's annual budget.
“We heard from communities across the country about the importance of their towers, and these were very tough decisions,” Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a news release Friday. “Unfortunately, we are faced with a series of difficult choices that we have to make to reach the required cuts under sequestration.”
FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said the agency will work with airports and operators to ensure procedures are in place to maintain safety at non-towered airports. The closures of the contract towers will begin April 7 and continue for the next four weeks on a phased basis, the FAA said.