Pilots will spend a lot more time looking out for each other if they lose that extra set of eyes and ears that are the air traffic control towers scheduled to close at the end of this month.
Private and commercial pilots alike will have a single frequency on which to communicate with each other, said Wendy Fredrickson, manager of the Lewiston-Nez Perce County Regional Airport tower, which is scheduled to be shut down at the end of the day March 31.
I am concerned about the safety and efficiency of the Lewiston airport if in fact the tower does have to close April 1, Fredrickson said.
The Lewiston tower is one of five in Idaho and eight in Washington that wont open April 1 to help meet an $85 billion reduction in federal spending mandated by the failure of Congress to reach a budget agreement Friday, according to the Federal Aviation Administration website.
Pilots going in and out of the Lewiston-Clarkston Valley will be on their own, Fredrickson said. Spokane doesnt have radar in this area, and wont be able to help monitor traffic here, she said.
In addition to the 13 towers in Idaho and Washington, Kalispell in western Montana and Pendleton in northeastern Oregon are among 168 nationwide that also may close.
The Pullman-Moscow Regional Airport doesnt have a control tower.
The Lewiston tower has been staffed from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. seven days a week.
Closure of the tower wont affect Horizon Airs operations, said Marianne Lindsey, spokeswoman for Alaska Air, its parent company. Horizon is one of two passenger services at Lewiston.
At this point, we dont anticipate any changes to our schedule at Lewiston, she said in a telephone message.
Horizon often operates at airports without air traffic control towers, Lindsey said. Its considered a normal part of our operation in some of the smaller community airports to operate without a tower.
If the present federal budget situation continues, however, the company is prepared to have some waits at larger airports as the FAA reduces personnel there, she said. So there are some anticipated issues.
After a two-hour meeting Friday, Fredrickson and Lewiston airport Manager Robin L. Turner agreed on one basic fact: Its a lot more complicated than just locking the doors and laying off people.
Quite frankly, there are a lot more questions than answers, Turner said.
Tower personnel have traditionally taken care of equipment required by the FAA, such as instrument landing systems and navigational aids that have to be monitored and repaired. Some equipment belongs to the National Weather Service but is used by the FAA.
The Automated Surface Observation System that sets at midfield on the airport measures whats above it. If theres a single cloud 100 feet overhead, that can shut down air traffic because a commercial air carrier cant legally operate under those conditions, and theres no human operator to look at the surrounding clear skies and override it, Turner said.
The switches that turn on the landing lights also are located inside the tower, which is going to be locked if nothing changes, he said.
We came up with our questions and will send them to the FAA, he said of his meeting with Fredrickson. Its not up to us to decide how to resolve the issues. The FAA sets the rules certificated air carriers live by and it decides what to do next.
The region also has a population of aircraft that do aerial chemical applications and dont have radios, Turner said. They fly in from all over the Northwest and Canada to have airport businesses perform service work. The standard practice is someone calls the tower, which tells the other airplanes someone is coming in without communication and those pilots then clear a path for him.
Thats part of the list of questions, Turner said.
Fredrickson referred most questions about the potential shutdown to her supervisor in Tennessee, who in turn passed queries on to his boss in Reston, Va. That person, Alan Hill with SERCO Management Services, couldnt be reached Friday.
SERCO is a private contractor. Most small and medium-sized air traffic control towers are staffed by contractors and not the FAA. The Lewiston tower has been managed by the company since 1994.
In 2003, the Lewiston airport tower was the first recipient of the Willie F. Card national award for customer service and safety for contract towers. The award is based on having a documented system in place to measure safety and customer service. The man for whom the award was named was an FAA contract tower branch manager and spearheaded the program that privatized air traffic control towers in 1982.
Fredrickson had been manager of what was then a five-person staff since 1998.
Both she and her supervisor declined to say how many people are employed at the Lewiston tower, saying it is proprietary information the company doesnt release. Lee may be contacted at slee(at)lmtribune.com or (208) 848-2266.