Lawmakers fight to keep Columbia's airport tower open as FAA extends closing date

Friday, April 5, 2013 | 6:58 p.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — In the dim lighting of the Columbia Regional Airport Control Tower, U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., voiced his support for keeping the control tower open despite the Federal Aviation Administration's desire to close the facility. 

In February, the FAA outlined its plans to close 100 air traffic control towers as the administration moves to cut spending by $600 million by the end of fiscal 2013. The Columbia airport's tower is among the towers slated for closure.

Early Friday morning, the FAA announced it had reconsidered plans to close the towers. All the closures have been pushed back to June 15, which will allow the agency to answer any legal challenges to the tower closures.

"This has been a complex process, and we need to get this right," U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in the news release. "Safety is our top priority. We will use this additional time to make sure communities and pilots understand the changes at their local airports."  

After climbing the winding, narrow metal stair case to the top of the Columbia tower, Blunt spoke with city leaders about the importance of keeping it open. 

"Closing airport control towers is not in the national interest of anyone," Blunt said. "What is in the national interest is maintaining air safety and air travel across the country." 

Blunt said he has asked the FAA to turn over safety studies of all Missouri airport towers. While he awaits those reports, Blunt said he has joined the legislative efforts of U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Ks., to alter the FAA budget to keep the towers operating. 

"What we wanted was to shift funding from lower priority projects like airport upgrades to keep the contracted towers like this one in Columbia open until we could get a new budget in place," Blunt said. The current budget expires Sept. 30. 

U.S. Rep. Vicki Hartzler, R-Harrisonville, also joined the chorus of legislators demanding that the FAA look for alternative budget cuts.

"It makes no sense to shut down these towers when there is plenty of waste to be found elsewhere," Hartzler said in a written statement Friday. 

LeRoy Welch, air traffic control manager at the airport, said the issue is one of safety rather than money.

"Aviation is a very unforgiving business," Welch said. "We are in the business of ensuring the safety of everyone's loved ones to make sure they take off and arrive safely." 

Welch, a 17-year veteran of airport traffic control, said having eyes on the ground at the airport has paid dividends and saved lives. 

"All it takes is one pilot making one mistake, or having one misunderstanding until you have a disaster on your hands," Welch said. "This airport tower needs controllers." 

Welch hopes the public will rally around efforts to keep the Columbia tower open.

"Look at it this way, every community has a fire department," Welch said. "The fire department does a lot of drills, practices and trainings just in case they get that call that they are needed. What would happen if someone called and they weren't there to get the call? What would happen to the airport if we weren't here?" 

Welch also had a special message for LaHood and other members of the FAA. 

"Come down here and take a look at what we have here, because what you are going to see is an airport that needs its airport tower," Welch said. "Sure, there are airport towers that need to close, but Columbia is not one of them." 

Supervising editor is Scott Swafford.

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