Federal cuts mean tower at Anoka County-Blaine Airport will close

The control tower at the Anoka County-Blaine Airport will close May 5.

The air traffic control tower a the Anoka County-Blaine Airport is scheduled to close May 5.File photo

The air traffic control tower a the Anoka County-Blaine Airport is scheduled to close May 5.File photo

The tower closures at the Anoka County-Blaine Airport and the St. Cloud Regional Airport were announced by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Friday.

They were two of 149 airports across the country to lose their control towers through the FAA’s cuts in response to the federal sequester.

But the loss of the control tower won’t mean that the Anoka County-Blaine Airport, a reliever airport for the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport (MSP) ,will be shut down to aircraft traffic.

According to Gary Schmidt, director of reliever airports for the Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC), the airport will lose its seven FAA-contract air traffic controllers, but flights in and out the airport will continue just as they do when the control tower is not operational at night.

Right now, the control tower at the airport is open from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. each day in the winter and 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. in the summer.

Pilots will have to broadcast to each other to maintain separation, which is the case during the nighttime hours now, Schmidt said.

“But it helps to have another set of eyes,” he said.

The FAA plans to start closing control towers across the country in phases April 7, with the Anoka County-Blaine Airport being among the last to close May 5, according to Schmidt.

“In the short term after the control tower shuts down, the first week or so, I don’t think we will see much of an impact,” Schmidt said.

“But over a period of time, I expect to see a migration of traffic to other airports where control towers are available, like St. Paul Holman Field.”

That’s because some corporations whose corporate jets use the Anoka County-Blaine Airport have a policy that their planes only fly in and out of airports where air traffic controllers are available, according to Schmidt.

Impacted would be the two fixed base operations (FBO) at the Anoka County-Blaine Airport, which provide gas, parking, maintenance, catering and other services to corporate jets using the airport, Schmidt said.

They are Key Air Twin Cities and Cirrus.

Key Air Twin Cities has been operating at the Anoka County-Blaine Airport for five years and according to its website has “an executive terminal and premier business center” with 70,000 square feet available for jet storage and office suites.

With the tower closure, “it will be hard to get new businesses to use this airport,” said Key Air Twin Cities General Manager Michael Lawrence.

“It will put us at a competitive disadvantage when we are trying to grow our business,” he said.

According to Lawrence, Key Air provides service to hundreds of corporate aircraft a year at the Anoka County-Blaine Airport.

When word first came through in early March that the Anoka County-Blaine Airport was one of the control towers scheduled for closure by the FAA, the MAC appealed, Schmidt said.

But the appeal was not successful, although a few were and Schmidt said he does not know what rationale the FAA has used to determine whose appeal was successful and whose was not.

Control towers at Crystal and Flying Cloud airports will remain open for the time being, but Schmidt is not optimistic that they will last beyond this year, he said.

However, there are bills in Congress that would restore funding to the FAA to keep control towers open, Schmidt said

But the $80 billion in sequester cuts to federal programs were part of the budget bills that passed House and Senate last week to keep the federal government operating through the end of the current fiscal year, Sept. 30.

Coon Rapids resident Dave McCauley has been a pilot for 15 years and learned to fly at the airport, where he is a member of the Gateway Flying Club, which has three airplanes.

Although he does not yet own an airplane, he is in the process of building one and expects to have it ready to fly in late 2014, according to McCauley.

“Those of us who are pilots are very concerned,” McCauley wrote in an email.

“Anoka is a busy field with a mixture of aircraft types. Closing the tower is like shutting off a traffic signal to save money on electricity.”

According to McCauley, he is also concerned that the charter jet traffic will relocate to St. Paul Holman and that would negatively impact Key Air.

“Bad news all around,” McCauley wrote in his email.

McCauley attended a forum Monday night on the airport tower closing with representatives from the Minnesota Department of Transportation’s Aviation and Aeronautics Division, the FAA air traffic controllers and MAC taking part.

There were some 100 people present to hear speakers describe how different flight procedures such as aircraft patterns and radio communications will have to be implemented to accommodate traffic at the airport, McCauley wrote in an email.

“But all of the speakers admitted that most of the solutions are unknown at this point and they are struggling to find answers to all of the questions surrounding the closures,” he wrote.

“The situation remains very fluid.”

There is very little night traffic at the airport and with an operating control tower, ground traffic is directed by a ground controller and air traffic is directed by a tower controller, according to McCauley.

Among other things, they tell the pilot which runway is in use, wind speed and direction and other information, McCauley wrote.

The ground controller directs the pilot to the departure end of the runway, clears to cross runways and advises on other ground traffic before the pilot switches the radio to the tower controller for takeoff clearance and instructions on avoiding other air traffic, he said.

“Tower radar allows the controller to accurately locate you,” McCauley wrote.

“You are then advised of any traffic in your area and if you are landing, given instructions on how to fly your approach and the sequence you are in for landing. Finally, you are cleared to land.”

At a non-towered airport, pilots are on their own, although each airport has a published set of general rules, according to McCauley.

At a busy field like Anoka, pilots would make their first transmission on the Common Traffic Advisory Frequency (CTAF), which all aircraft use, about 20 miles out, giving aircraft number, type, altitude, direction from the field and the pilot’s intention, McCauley wrote in his email.

“You will repeat this information as you get nearer the field,” he wrote. “Other aircraft in the vicinity will know you are there and give you appropriate responses.”

“When traffic is heavy, this requires vigilance to avoid conflicts.”

“Fifty percent of all airport traffic accidents occur on landing.”

When the aircraft is on the ground, the pilot will broadcast taxiing, taking off and crossing runways information, according to McCauley

The control tower closure at the airport came up at Tuesday’s Anoka County Board meeting.

Anoka County Board Chairperson Rhonda Sivarajah was concerned about the FAA’s decision and its impact on jobs and the “economic viability” of the FBOs at the airport, she said.

The FAA has kept open smaller airports than the Anoka County-Blaine facility because their air traffic controllers are FAA employees rather than contract workers, Sivarajah said.

The tower closure will also impact MSP because the Anoka County-Blaine Airport takes planes that would otherwise land at MSP, thus easing the pressure on MSP, according to Sivarajah.

“This will have ramifications for Anoka County,” Sivarajah said. “I hope funding can be found to keep the tower open.”

County Commissioner Matt Look said that closing the tower raises a safety issue.

In talking with a Lear Jet pilot, Look was told that planes using the Anoka County-Blaine Airport are diverse, ranging from those that travel at 50 mph to jets that have speeds up to 200 mph and with no controllers, there is a matter of safety, he said.

According to the MAC website, there 79,000 are takeoffs and landings annually at the airport, with 403 aircraft based at the airport.

The airport has runways of 4,855 and 5,000 feet with precision instrument landing system approach.

Peter Bodley is at peter.bodley@ecm-inc.com

  • G. Rootes

    Another inconvenience and a safety issue…I guess we all want something, but no one wishes to pay for it! Another example of cutting our way to prosperity!

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