By TINA ALVEY
MAXWELTON, W.Va. — Greenbrier Valley Airport officials have adopted a neutral posture regarding the Trump administration’s proposal to slash transportation spending by 13 percent, a move that would likely include privatization of the Contract Tower Program and elimination of Essential Air Service subsidies.
Touching on the sensitive topic briefly at last week’s airport authority meeting, airport manager Stephen Snyder told authority members that they “need to discuss where the federal contract tower is going.”
No such discussion took place at that Tuesday meeting, however.
While Snyder said it’s not appropriate to panic in the face of the threats from Washington, he acknowledged, “We wouldn’t want to see the tower go away.”
This wait-and-see attitude stands in stark contrast to the proactive manner in which airport officials responded to a similar threat to tower operations four years ago, when they went so far as to join a lawsuit challenging the Federal Aviation Administration’s decision to close some 150 air traffic control towers nationwide.
Then, as now, Greenbrier Valley’s tower was managed by an outside company under an FAA contract. The landing and takeoff services provided by the tower were termed by then-airport manager Jerry O’Sullivan as “our most important aircraft safety measure.” Losing the tower during the busy summer months, he warned, would be “catastrophic.”
But today, Snyder says, tower operations at Greenbrier Valley are greatly reduced, with air traffic volume cut in half over the past 12 years.
In the U.S., 253 airports in 46 states currently participate in the Contract Tower Program and are widely recognized as an important component of an integrated national air traffic control system. Contract towers handle around 28 percent of all U.S. tower operations, while accounting for only 14 percent of the portion of the FAA’s budget allotted to those operations.
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Following up on the issue on Thursday, Snyder provided a transcript of testimony given to a congressional subcommittee by a representative of the American Association of Airport Executives (AAAE). Snyder said Greenbrier Valley Airport is an AAAE member and, as such, “stay(s) tied into their monitoring of programs.”
Testifying before the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation’s Subcommittee on Aviation Operations, Safety and Security on April 6, Spencer Dickerson wore two hats. He is senior executive vice president of global operations with the AAAE and also serves as executive director of the U.S. Contract Tower Association.
“Our members strongly believe that the FAA should err on the side of safety, not abstract economic models, when considering the future of the Contract Tower Program,” Dickerson said. “This program is not just about dollars and cents — it is about what’s in the best interest of advancing aviation safety throughout the nation.”
Without the relief offered by contract towers, Dickerson told the senators, congestion and delays at larger airports would likely increase. He also pointed to the partnerships between U.S. military operations and contract tower airports.
Snyder had dismissed concerns about the proposed privatization of the Contract Tower Program, telling the media after Tuesday’s meeting, “We are essentially already privatized.”
Dickerson was not quite so sanguine.
“Our members are concerned that (a private) air traffic control corporation could unilaterally decide to close some or all contract towers,” he testified on April 6. “To avoid that possible scenario, we believe that Congress should require the corporation to receive approval from the local airport operator before being allowed to close its contract tower.”
Turning to the topic of the Essential Air Service (EAS) program, which subsidizes commercial flights at the country’s small airports — including Greenbrier Valley — Dickerson urged the subcommittee “to continue to support this program and reject the administration’s proposal to eliminate commercial air service to communities around the country.”
He noted, “Without the EAS program, it would be difficult for many small communities to retain commercial air service and attract businesses that promote economic development and support jobs.”
Snyder disagreed with Dickerson’s assessment on that point, however, bluntly saying, “EAS is inefficient. Commonsense reforms are needed.”
He and the Greenbrier County Airport Authority have “engaged our congressional representatives,” Snyder said. He said the message to those representatives included, “We hope the fat and waste are cut away.”
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In a later interview with The Register-Herald, Lewisburg Mayor John Manchester emphasized many of the same points that Dickerson presented to the congressional subcommittee.
“The Essential Air Service program provides needed funding to keep services available at smaller airports where service is hard to maintain,” Manchester said.
“The air traffic control tower provides a vital service in maintaining the safety of our flying public. I am hopeful that we can retain that level of protection going forward.”
Manchester was one of seven West Virginia mayors — and more than 115 mayors from all 50 states — who signed a letter to Congress on March 6 voicing opposition to the privatization of air traffic control towers. That letter was released by the Alliance for Aviation Across America, a nonprofit coalition of more than 6,300 individuals representing business and agricultural groups, small airports, elected officials, charitable organizations and others.
That letter reads in part:
“We depend on our local airport and all sectors of transportation to reach far-off markets and access critical services such as law enforcement, disaster relief and medical care…
“Privatization would hand over decisions about infrastructure funding, taxes and fees, consumer complaints, noise and many other priorities to a board of private interests dominated by the commercial airlines. These are the same airlines that have cut back flights to smaller communities by more than 20 percent in recent years and have stated their intent to divert investment from small and mid-sized communities to large ones where the airlines are most profitable…
“While we all agree that modernizing our air traffic control system and investing in American infrastructure should be among our highest priorities, privatization is not the answer.”
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