Skies Friendly in Lebanon, For Now
Air Traffic Controller Furloughs Have Had Little Impact in Twin States
Air Traffic Control Specialist Jeff Lewis uses binoculars to be sure an incoming plane’s landing gear is down at the Lebanon Municipal Airport. The flight control tower is among those that could be forced to close in the fall as part of the federal government’s sequestration. “I think they threw us in as a political football,” he said. “Whatever happens, those are the breaks.”(Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Purchase photo reprints »
Air Traffic Manager Braxton Freeman talks about the multiple approaches to the Lebanon Municipal Airport and how controllers in the tower help guide them. The tower among those under discussion for closure as part of the federal government's sequestration. (
Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Purchase photo reprints »
Lebanon — The furloughs of federal air traffic controllers that are snarling flight schedules around the country are not having an affect on the city’s airport, its director said yesterday.
“There are flight delays in other places, but we haven’t seen it here,’’ said Richard Dyment, noting that his facility’s controllers are employed by Midwest Air Traffic, a private contractor, and therefore not subject to enforced, unpaid leave by the Federal Aviation Administration.
The message was similar from Tom Malafronte, the assistant airport director at Manchester-Boston Regional Airport, which uses FAA controllers.
“It’s still fairly early in the process so we haven’t experienced any significant impacts … due to sequestration,’’ Malafronte wrote in an email. “Our concern, of course, is that even if the impacts are minimal here at MHT, our customers may be inconvenienced on their return flights home. We’ll be keeping a close eye on the sequestration process and will make every attempt to advise our customers if (and) when we know that specific airports or routes may be experiencing delays.”
Doug Wood, the operations foreman at Burlington International Airport, said his facility has seen slight delays because there are fewer federal air traffic controllers working at bigger airports with connecting flights to Burlington.
“When the overseas planes start coming into places like (New York’s Kennedy Airport) and Newark in the afternoon, that’s when we start to feel it,’’ Wood said. “When there’s good weather, like today, then the delays are because there are fewer controllers working down there and they have to space the planes farther apart.”
Wood said the Burlington airport’s federal controllers are furloughed one work day out of 10. He said he was unsure how many controllers worked at the airport.
The Senate passed legislation last night designed to bring an end to the air traffic controller furloughs and the delays. The House could vote on it as early as today.
Officials with Manchester-Regional Airport and Boston’s Logan Airport declined to comment on FAA matters, referring inquires to the organization’s New England Region Public Affairs office. A release from that office noted that on Wednesday “863 delays in the system were attributable to staffing reductions resulting from the furlough.”
“Travelers can expect to see a wide range of delays that will change throughout the day depending on staffing and weather related issues,’’ the release continued. “Controllers will space planes farther apart so they can manage traffic with current staff … and will continue to work with the airlines throughout the day to try and minimize delays for travelers. We encourage all travelers to check their flight status and also to visit fly.faa.gov for the latest airport delay information.”
Braxton Freeman, Midwest Air Traffic’s manager in Lebanon, said the control tower is always staffed but declined to reveal how many workers the company employes at the airport. However, he said two controllers work simultaneously in the tower during the day and one works at night .
Freeman added that privately-contracted controllers command less than half of what their FAA counterparts do in salary and benefits and that many of them are retired military or FAA controllers.
Of larger concern to Freeman and Dyment than delays is the fact that President Obama’s proposed 2014 U.S. budget doesn’t include funding to cover privately-contracted controllers if the sequester is still in place on Oct. 1. That would leave individual airports and the municipalities where they’re located to pick up the cost.
“We’re 100 percent FAA-funded, as are most contract (control) towers,’’ said Dyment. “If sequestration continues, the only way to keep the tower open would be for the city or airport users to pay the cost. My real fear, and I’m very afraid of this, is that there would be a severe safety issue with the transition to no (controller-staffed) tower here.”
Standing in the tower’s glassed-in top level yesterday afternoon, Freeman gestured toward the airport’s two, bi-directional runways and explained that although the facility is small, it can be tricky for pilots to navigate. The idea of Lebanon’s airfield operating without controllers worries him beyond the issue of job security, he added.
“The intersection of the runways is where you could have a catastrophe,’’ Braxton said, pointing out that a plane taking off or landing on one of Lebanon’s runways can’t always see a plane on the other runway because of a hill that’s located inside the V that forms where they meet. “Without a controller, planes have to kind of negotiate with each other as to who’s doing what in the air. If things are busy, you have a fast-moving jet and an inexperienced pilot, it can be very dangerous.”
Weather conditions are also a major factor at Lebanon, said Freeman and fellow controller Jeff Lewis, who was also in the tower yesterday afternoon. Banks of fog can drift over the airport, especially during summer mornings, and shifting wind can make for challenging landings. Freeman said he’s seen gusts as high as 45 mph.
“We’re in mountainous terrain and when the snow’s blowing or the rain’s coming down heavy, pilots need a real set of eyes on the ground,’’ he said.
Chip Sieglinger, who piloted his private plane into Lebanon yesterday on a 2-hour, 15-minute flight from Morgantown, W.Va., to visit his newborn granddaughter, shares Freeman’s view. He said he’s been alerted by small-airport controllers to not only weather conditions and other planes, but to the presence of turkeys, geese and deer on runways.
“It would definitely reduce safety to not have a (staffed) control tower,’’ Siegliner said. “There’s any number of things (controllers) know about that you don’t know until you’re on the ground.”
Standing in the Lebanon airport lobby yesterday while waiting for a commercial flight to Boston, South Woodstock resident Nancy Sevcenko said she would be “a lot more comfortable” knowing controllers were on duty in the facility’s control tower.
“I worry about the whole system in principle,’’ said Sevcenko, whose plan upon landing in Boston was to catch a flight to Washington. “Now, when you really have to make a connection, you might not make it. You can see that all the gears have to work together.”
Freeman said he’s aware of “a huge movement” to prevent the sequester from causing the elimination of privately-contracted air traffic controllers’ jobs. U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., has proposed a bill that would shield control towers from funding cuts. A bipartisan group representing a third of the Senate supports the bill, Moran told reporters yesterday.
“How does what the government is saving compare to the potential lives we save or enhance every year?’’ said Freeman. “It feels like we’re being overlooked because the government is trying to show that they’re going to save money. Each control tower is part of the national air space system and it needs to be regulated and run professionally with lots of oversight.”
Tris Wykes can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3227.