The Federal Aviation Administration announced Friday that it will keep the air traffic control tower at Gabreski Airport open, just weeks after threatening its closure—and the closure of 188 other towers across the country—due to federal spending cuts.
The tower at the Westhampton airport was one of only two dozen such facilities fully funded by the federal government that were spared from closure. Another 16 towers that are partially funded by the federal government also were saved at the last minute, increasing the total number of spared towers to 40.
The FAA still intends to close 149 towers across the country over a four-week period, starting on Sunday, April 7, according to a statement released by the agency. Earlier this month, the FAA announced that it had to close 189 towers in order to trim more than $600 million from its $15.2 billion budget for the remainder of 2013, as part of the across-the-board spending cuts known as sequestration.
“We heard from communities across the country about the importance of their towers, and these were very tough decisions,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood in a prepared statement.
In a statement, U.S. Representative Tim Bishop of Southampton said the FAA has determined that keeping the Gabreski tower open is in the “national interest,” explaining that the reversal was motivated by the fact that the Air National Guard’s 106th Rescue Wing is based at the Suffolk County-owned airport. The base shares airspace with privately owned planes and aviation businesses.
ANG officials did not return calls and emails this week seeking comment on the FAA’s about-face.
“The preservation of FAA’s control tower at Gabreski is very welcome news to all of us who support the 106th Air Rescue Wing, as well as the general aviation community who rely on the tower to safely guide aircraft in and out of the airport,” Mr. Bishop said in a statement.
Anthony Ceglio, the manager of the airport, this week described the FAA’s decision as “huge,” explaining that the control tower is the “main reason the airport operates safely with the number of aircraft that take off and land throughout the year, especially in the summer.”
Originally, the FAA said it was going to close those towers that oversee fewer than 150,000 total operations each year. Last year, Gabreski had approximately 77,000 operations.
Like Mr. Bishop, Mr. Ceglio credited the presence of the ANG for saving the tower, which costs the federal government more than $500,000 a year to operate.
If the tower at Gabreski had been shuttered next month, pilots would have been forced to follow “non-tower” protocols, meaning they would be solely responsible for the operation of their aircraft when approaching and departing from the airport. At the present time, pilots are required to follow that protocol only at night; air traffic controllers are employed during the day.
The tower at Gabreski, as well as the 23 other facilities, were spared because federal officials decided that their closure would pose “significant threats to national security” following consultation with the Department of Defense or the Department of Homeland Security. Potential economic impact was another factor, according to the FAA.
Mr. Ceglio said there are two banner-towing companies, one glider-towing firm and several charter jet companies that currently fly into Gabreski, and that some had expressed concern over the possible closure.
“If the tower closed, it was presumed that some companies might fly to other less busy airports,” Mr. Ceglio said. “That could have negatively affected jobs at the airport and in the surrounding communities that supply fuel to the airport, catering supplies for aircraft, rental car businesses, taxi companies, etc.”
Paul Mejean, the chairman of the Gabreski Airport Noise Abatement Work Group, said the continued presence of air traffic controllers should keep pilots safe. He noted that there are, on average, about 300 takeoffs and landings every day at Gabreski during daylight hours each summer.
“This works out to one every three minutes,” said Mr. Mejean, who lives in Quogue. “With that volume of uncontrolled traffic, there would have been the real possibility of a tragic accident.”
Equally important to those who, like him, live near the airport, the air traffic controllers will continue to steer pilots away from the most densely populated neighborhoods that surround the airport, when weather and air traffic permit. If the tower had closed, Mr. Mejean worried that pilots would have selected whatever runway was most convenient to them, ignoring the airport’s noise abatement policies.
“Substantial progress has been made over the years with respect to the adoption and enforcement of noise abatement procedures,” he said. “Closure of the tower would have done away with this [with] a single stroke.”