Tourist Attraction Could Be Hurt By Closed Control Towers

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(KTVI) - Automatic federal budget cuts mean airports in Missouri and Illinois that have daily scheduled commercial airline service may lose their control towers as of June 15. Airports losing their air traffic controllers would include Branson, MO., with six passenger flights daily on Southwest and Frontier Airlines, Columbia, MO., with three flights daily on American Airlines, and Springfield, IL., with five flights a day on American and United airlines.

The Federal Aviation Administration says the closing of 149 control towers across the U.S. is made necessary by automatic cuts mandated by the sequestration law, which mandates across-the-board budget cuts at most federal agencies. Lawmakers like MO. Sen. Roy Blunt (R), and MO. Rep. Vickie Hartzler (R) maintain the cuts endanger public safety, as do many airport professionals. But all the airlines involved claim they can continue to operate safely at airports with no control towers.

Unknown to most airline passengers, airlines already operate at numerous airports around the country that are "untowered" and have no air traffic controllers on duty. This is made possible by aircraft technology, and radar systems at approach control centers. Approach controllers handle flights from full altitude to fifty to eighty feet off the ground. Control towers have traditionally been most important during the last part of landings, first part of takeoffs, and while planes are on the ground.

Despite the airline's safety claims, airport professionals interviewed by FOX2 say having no control towers makes travel more dangerous. "I hate to say it, but it would not be safe," said LeRoy Welch, chief air traffic controller at the Columbia airport. "Flying is so unpredictable that anything can happen."

Moments before Welch made that statement, a private plane popped out of the clouds and landed on the main runway with no radio communication, no warning, and no clearance. Welch shook his head. "That's what I mean. The mix of private and commercial planes can be unpredictable."

Columbia Airport Manager Don Elliott agreed. "It makes it less safe, no doubt," he said. "We're going to close 149 control towers? That's mind-boggling from an agency like the F.A.A. whose primary mission is safety."

Even though F.A.A. statistics show that half of all commercial aircraft accidents and half of all fatalities occur on takeoff or landing, University of Missouri-St. Louis professor and instrument-rated pilot Ray Mundy does not see a safety compromise. "There's an impact but it's a minor impact," said Mundy, director of UMSL's Center for Transportation Studies. "Safety would not be compromised at all. The U.S. airline industry has an unparalleled safety record."

The F.A.A. says the towers will close June 15, unless Congress or the President intervene, or unless a safety survey shows that shutting them down will compromise safety.

List of Area Control Towers To Close:
•    BBG – Branson, MO
•    COU – Columbia, MO
•    ALN – Alton, IL
•    BMI – Bloomington & Normal, IL
•    DEC – Decatur, IL
•    MDH – Carbondale, IL
•    UGN – Waukegan, IL
See the full list here:

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