The Federal Aviation Administration announced nationwide cuts in funding for air traffic control as the result of the federal sequestration. The FAA has eliminated funding for contract tower operations, including the Ithaca Tompkins Regional Airport, and reduced support for operations at larger airports staffed by FAA controllers.
News of the federal cuts has caused concern that service at affected airports, including the Ithaca Tompkins Regional Airport, may be reduced. Without a tower staff, arriving and departing planes will have to self-queue. This is done at many airports routinely. There are over 5,000 airports in the United States and only 450 have control towers, proposed to be reduced by 149 due to sequestration. Given the volume of traffic at the airport, it is not expected to be a significant problem. Airport Manager Robert Nicholas and members of the County’s Air Services Board announced that flight schedules—and safety—at the Airport will be maintained at current levels.
All of the local experts agreed that the safety of passengers using the Ithaca Tompkins Regional Airport will not be affected. However, they raised concerns that sequestration could cause delays and service interruptions for air travelers throughout the nation.
Responding to the County’s top priority—passenger safety—Airport Manager Robert Nicholas said, “Passenger safety will not be affected by the closure of the tower. Planes will be directed by FAA controllers in Elmira—an arrangement that has worked flawlessly for years for all flights before 6:30 a.m. and air traffic after 10 p.m. into and out of the Airport. We have years of experience with this system and can say, unequivocally, that safety will not be an issue.”
Retired Air Force General Mike Hall, who is both a pilot and member of the County’s Air Services Board, echoed Nicholas’s assurances regarding passenger safety. “Pilots flying into the airport are used to having radar controllers located at remote locations, and the Elmira radar covers our area, so there will not be a problem with air traffic control. With instrument controlled landing technology, as well as automated weather conditions routinely provided to pilots, safety will be maintained at the highest levels.”
Both Nicholas and Hall expressed concerns with the national air travel system that will be stressed by the loss of contract towers and diminished staffing in FAA towers. “With far fewer controllers in the national system on any given day, the volume of activity may simply overwhelm the capacity of the controllers,” said Hall. “I worry that this will result in delays and service interruptions that will affect airports and passengers throughout the country, including Tompkins County.”
Air Services Board Chair Michael Stamm, who is also president of the Tompkins County Area Development agency, called upon Congress to provide funds necessary to keep the air traffic control system at current levels of operations. “Our local economy, and the nation’s, depends on the mobility of people and products. If the abrupt and significant cut in the staffing of control towers throughout the nation impedes that mobility, our economy will suffer. Particularly now, as we’re beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel, Congress should act now to restore funding to the FAA to keep the air traffic control system intact.”