St. Cloud worried about shutdown of air traffic control tower

Bill Towle
Bill Towle, airport director for the St. Cloud Regional Airport, says the airport will be less safe without air traffic controllers. The tower is one of the 149 air traffic control towers the Federal Aviation Administration is scheduled to close June 15. The FAA needs to cut $637 million from its budget because of the sequester.
MPR Photo/Conrad Wilson

The Federal Aviation Administration's decision to close 149 air traffic control towers nationwide later this year because of federal budget cuts could hinder efforts to expand service at St. Cloud Regional Airport.

Closing the tower could make it more difficult to lure airlines to St. Cloud, Airport Director Bill Towle said.

"If there are some things that are kind of going against St. Cloud and then they also see that we don't have an air traffic control tower they might say, 'Boy that kind of pushes us over the edge' to not receive service," Towle said.

If all goes according to FAA plans, air traffic controllers in St. Cloud and at the Anoka County-Blaine Airport will be out of work in mid-June.

The closures come at a particularly bad time for the St. Cloud airport, which is actively working to expand air service with daily nonstop flights to Chicago.

"It's not preventing those things from happening, but it's not helpful," St. Cloud Mayor Dave Kleis said of the FAA's plan. "I mean, it's not something that we lead with, the fact that the tower is closed."

Closing the tower also would affect the airport's existing operations. The same goes for 148 other airports around the county , where towers could go dark at the beginning of the summer. Federal budget cuts known as the sequester are forcing the FAA to reduce its budget by $637 million

Air traffic controller Brian Dickinson
Air traffic controller Brian Dickinson clears a pilot to land at the St. Cloud Regional Airport on Wednesday, April 10, 2013 in St. Cloud, Minn.
MPR Photo/Conrad Wilson

The St. Cloud airport is used by military helicopters, private and commercial jets as well as students learning to fly.

Without the tower, take offs and landings will be more difficult, said Brian Dickinson, an air traffic controller in St. Cloud.

"The pilots will have to call up and then kind of talk to each other when they enter the air space and find out where each other are -- and come up with a plan themselves to figure out how to get to the runway," he said.

In March, the FAA first announced its plans to close the towers and provided the guidelines it was using to make those decisions. Part of the criteria the agency used was the number of airport operations, which is simply a take-off or a landing.

In St. Cloud, there are about airport 40,000 operations per year, Towle said.

"They pulled this number out of a hat: 150,000 operations or less," he said. "That means your tower was at risk. Or it was 10,000 commercial operations and then your tower would be on the chopping block."

Across the country, the pending closures have raised questions about safety. Towle said pilots are trained to fly -- and frequently do -- out of uncontrolled air space.

"Obviously we will be less safe without the tower," he said. "We're not going to be unsafe, but we're going to be less safe. And again it's that extra set of eyes and ears that we like to have up there."

Twice per week, Allegiant Air provides commercial service between St. Cloud and Mesa, Arizona. The airline started flying in December, bringing commercial service back to the region for the first time since Delta pulled out in late 2009.

Allegiant only flies into one market where the air space is not controlled. If Congress does not reach a budget deal, that number will grow to 11.

Jessica Wheeler, a spokesperson for Allegiant, said the airline's preference is to have an air traffic control tower, but doesn't plan to pull out of St. Cloud.

"We have every intention of continuing service as usual," she said. "Our pilots are more than trained so that there's no sacrifice in safety without it."

St. Cloud officials say they are lobbying Minnesota's congressional delegation and hopeful that lawmakers can help find a solution that would keep the tower open.

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.