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Air traffic control tower closings would have a minor impact on the Twin Cities

Flying Cloud airport
Creative Commons/Peter Markham
Flying Cloud airport is used for general aviation, meaning flights by corporations or hobbyists.

WASHINGTON — The air traffic control tower closings Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood warned would come with deep federal spending cuts are not likely to affect traffic too badly in the Twin Cities, even though four airports have towers on the closing list.

LaHood said the federal budget cuts known as “sequestration” would slash about $600 million from the Federal Aviation Administration budget starting March 1, leading to air traffic controller furloughs and tower closings at many small airports around the country, including at Anoka County-Blaine Airport, Flying Cloud, Crystal and St. Cloud, according to an FAA list.

The first three airports are part of the Metropolitan Airports Commission, but there are no scheduled commercial flights to them, MAC spokesman Pat Hogan said. The airports are used for general aviation, meaning flights by corporations or hobbyists. They're "reliever airports," meaning private aviators use them instead of adding to the traffic into and out of Minneapolis-St. Paul International.

Hogan said a lot of similar airports around the country are already without air traffic towers, and while “having a tower in place does provide a different level of safety,” closing them wouldn’t have a dramatic impact on pilots using the airports, and wouldn’t affect consumers who fly commercial.

(St. Cloud does have commercial flights, but according to MPR’s Bob Collins, a pilot himself, “It's not as if it's every-pilot-for-him/herself. In the absence of a controller, there are radio procedures for keeping an orderly flow of traffic.” Collins has an in-depth post on the subject here.)

Hogan said officials at MSP International don’t yet know what FAA furloughs would mean for the airport.

“The question is, if the FAA has to furlough a large number of employees, how many of those will be air traffic controllers and how many of those will be air traffic controllers at major airports,” he said.

Congress has about a week to stop the $85 billion in cuts set to take effect on March 1, though lawmakers could also undo them after that deadline passes. Both parties say they don’t want the sequester to kick in, but they’ve yet to find an agreeable way to undo it.

Devin Henry can be reached at dhenry@minnpost.com.

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Comments (4)

Crystal Airport

This is sort of tangential to the issue at hand, but:

Not long ago, the MAC did an audit of their airports, but stopped short of recommending closure for even the least used and most duplicative locations. The already tiny Crystal airport was actually recommended to reduce the number of runways, rather than close and move its operations to Blaine (or elsewhere).

If the Bottineau Light Rail line is built as planned, it is imperative that the Crystal Airport be closed and redeveloped into something more supportive of that infrastructure investment.

Also, can anyone tell me why Crystal and New Hope don't just merge? That is the strangest and most pointless inter-municipal boundary in the Twin Cities.

They don't merge

…because they don't want to. Somewhere, at some time, a group of residents convinced themselves that there was something unique about their area, or that they weren't receiving the proper amount of attention from existing government, and a new municipality was formed.

Cheer up. It could be much worse.

Hennepin County covers 606 square miles, with a population of about 1.5 million, there are only 45 actual, chartered municipalities, including Minneapolis, Crystal and New Hope.

I say "only 45" because I lived in suburban St. Louis for a long time, and its 524 square miles suffer under the weight of 91 – that's ninety-one – separate municipalities, with just under a million (998,000) people. That's not counting the City of St. Louis, which voted to separate itself from St. Louis County in the 1870s – a decision city leaders have had ample opportunity to regret in the ensuing decades. Parochial attitudes and politics are a St. Louis specialty.

By way of contrast, I also lived for quite a few years in Jefferson County, Colorado (west suburban Denver). Jefferson County covers 778 square miles, and has a population of just under 540,000, but has only 13 incorporated cities or towns.

The country is full of municipal boundaries that make no sense – and some county and state boundaries that also sometimes defy logic, or at least seem to.

Premature

The headline for this piece seems a bit premature.

When Pat Hogan says, ““The question is, if the FAA has to furlough a large number of employees, how many of those will be air traffic controllers and how many of those will be air traffic controllers at major airports,” that's not quite the same thing as asserting that the sequester would have a “minor” impact on the Twin Cities. Presumably – hopefully – the tower at MSP would not actually be closed. Visions of flaming debris and bodies scattered all over the airport tarmac are hard to avoid in that scenario. Still, if enough people are laid off, there "could be" significant delays at every major airport. If every flight in or out is delayed by 90 minutes or so – a figure and scenario I saw elsewhere online – it seems safe to say that the flying public, and the families thereof, would NOT be happy.

And kudos to the photographer for the great shot of a gorgeous Corsair. Nice landing, too…

Impacts Aren't "minor"

FAA re-authorizations and budgets have been screwed up of 14 of the last 15 years. Further FAA staff reductions would be after an accumulation of 1] acknowledged ATC and key inspector retirements; 2) big changes in traffic patterns as airlines "consolidate" flights at fewer hubs; 3) the irregular and several times delayed deployment of ATC systems and equipment; and 4) the lack of visible progress in training and work-rule compliance as airlines merge work-forces with the trend toward cheaper less-experienced, and less well-trained pilots.