FUNDING IN JEOPARDY — Federal dollars that pay for the air control tower operation at Griffiss International Airport could fall prey to budget reductions. President Donald Trump’s budget proposal calls for the privatization of air control operations, which are overseen by the Federal Aviation Administration. The FAA now pays a contractor to staff the Griffiss tower. (Sentinel photo by John Clifford)

Federal privatization plan could impact Griffiss control tower

Published Apr 4, 2017 at 4:10pm

Cuts in President Donald Trump’s proposed budget could have implications for Griffiss International Airport.

The federally funded contract air control towers program that is in jeopardy in the president’s first spending plan has such a facility at the county airport. The Federal Aviation Administration pays for a company to operate the Griffiss tower to guide and monitor pilots and their planes at Griffiss and in the local airspace between 7 a.m. and 9 p.m. seven days a week. However, because of the proposed budget, there’s a debate about whether tower operations ought to be privatized.

The proposal says spinning off air traffic operations from the Federal Aviation Administration and placing them under an “independent, nongovernmental organization” would make the system “more efficient and innovative while maintaining safety.”

Ultimately, however, the purse strings are controlled by Congress.

General aviation airports like Griffiss, which has no scheduled passenger service, can operate without a staffed tower. However, the county airport is committed to having an operating tower in support of the aircraft overhaul facility and the ground services provider.

A staffed tower is seen as adding a layer of safety to an airport’s operations.

Customers of the Premier Aviation Overhaul Center repair and maintenance operation could view a closed tower as a deterrent to bringing their aircraft to Rome. Its customers fly large commercial planes, including the massive Boeing 747s.

Also, military aircraft conducting practice maneuvers may pick airports with an operational tower over one without. Military planes often use the Griffiss runway for touch-and-go landings and takeoffs.

The federal contract towers program operates 253 towers nationally, including the one at Griffiss, said Aviation Commissioner Russell Stark. He said the program handles 28 percent of air traffic control operations across the United States and accounts for 14 percent of the FAA’s towers budget.

The arrangement under which the FAA pays to have a tower at the old county airport in Whitestown was carried over to Griffiss when the airport was moved there in 2007. The contractor’s’ employees aren’t government employees.

In 2013, when tower closure was a possibility because of automatic federal government spending cuts triggered by sequestration, the county made tentative plans to pay to keep the facility staffed. In the end, the closure did not occur and FAA continues to operate the tower through a contractor.

Stark said it is too early to know what a rate schedule or fees might look like under privatization. The county assuming the cost of operating the tower could be an option if the FAA gets out of the tower business.

Hundreds of small airports around the country routinely run without controllers, with pilots following recommended procedures to watch for other aircraft and announce their position over the radio during approaches, landings and takeoffs. There are about 50,000 airline and other aircraft flights a day in the United States.