FAA to close air control towers in Ogden, Provo

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Associated Press

Posted on March 22, 2013 at 2:30 PM

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — The Federal Aviation Administration announced Friday that air traffic control towers in Ogden and Provo will be closed, leading airport managers in the two cities to voice concerns about serious air safety issues.

The FAA said the Ogden and Provo air traffic control towers are among 149 that will be closed beginning April 7. The two were on a list of 238 facilities with low traffic volumes that were being considered for closure by the FAA.

The airports will remain open, but pilots will be left to coordinate takeoffs and landings among themselves over a shared radio frequency with no help from ground controllers, under procedures that all pilots are trained to carry out.

Air traffic controllers in Ogden monitor three flight patterns at different altitudes arriving to and departing from Ogden, Salt Lake International and Hill Air Force Base, said Ogden airport manager Royal Eccles. With the Hill Air Force Base within four miles, Eccles even goes as far as to call the potential closure a "national security issue." Hill is a base for F-16s, and it will soon be a base for F-35s.

"There's going to be problems," Eccles said. "There will be safety concerns and ramification because of it."

About two-thirds of the flights at the Provo Airport are piloted by students enrolled at one of the country's largest flight schools at a nearby university, Gleason said.

Since 2005, federally paid air traffic controllers have made sure the student pilots stay safe as they hone their skills in the same airspace with dozens of other planes flown by veteran pilots. Taking away air tower controllers at the Provo airport will be like stripping stop lights from a busy street intersection filled with student drivers, he said.

"Obviously, we are very disappointed," Provo airport manager Steve Gleason said. "We're still not going to give up fight to either reopen it or get some common sense to prevail."

Gleason and Eccles both hold out hope that Congress may pass legislation to keep the air control towers open.

Eccles said there are no alternate funding sources to pay for the five air traffic controllers that staff the Ogden tower. In Provo, Gleason said they are exploring a host of possibilities to pay the controllers, but said getting liability insurance is no small hurdle.

"It's not cheap to keep an air traffic control open," Gleason said.

The FAA is being forced to trim $637 million for the rest of the fiscal year that ends Sept. 30. The agency said it had no choice but to subject most of its 47,000 employees, including tower controllers, to periodic furloughs and to close air traffic facilities at small airports with lighter traffic. The changes are part of the across-the-board federal spending cuts that started taking effect March 1.

All of the airports targeted for tower shutdowns have fewer than 150,000 total flight operations per year. Of those, fewer than 10,000 are commercial flights by passenger airlines. The federal funding paid for contracted air traffic controllers.

"We will work with the airports and the operators to ensure the procedures are in place to maintain the high level of non-towered airports," FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said in a statement.

The Ogden and Provo airports serve as diversionary airports for Salt Lake International Airport in inclement weather, though commercial airlines sometimes just fly to Las Vegas or to Boise or Twin Falls, Idaho.

Provo and Ogden serve mainly private flights, though each has two Allegiant Air flights a week. Allegiant Air announced Wednesday that it will add a flight from Provo to Oakland, Calif., this summer.

Allegiant spokeswoman Jessica Wheeler said Friday the airline doesn't plan to make any changes.

"All of our pilots are trained to fly safely in uncontrolled air space," Wheeler said.

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Associated Press writer Jason Keyser in Chicago contributed to this report.

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