Anoka County-Blaine Airport tower closure delayed again

Air traffic control towers at the Anoka County-Blaine Airport and in St. Cloud will not close in June, but remain open at least through September.

Denis Rinehart (left), air traffic control manager, and Wayne Vallevand (right) in the Anoka County-Blaine Airport air traffic control tower, which was once slated to close May 5, and then around June 15, but now will remain open at least through the end of September. Photo by Eric Hagen

Denis Rinehart (left), air traffic control manager, and Wayne Vallevand (right) in the Anoka County-Blaine Airport air traffic control tower, which was once slated to close May 5, and then around June 15, but now will remain open at least through the end of September. Photo by Eric Hagen

This is the second time the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has delayed closing 149 air traffic control towers at reliever airports across the country as part of the agency’s required $637 million budget cuts under the federal sequester. Anoka County’s tower was originally slated to close May 5 and then June 15 at the earliest.

The U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced that the Reducing Flight Delays Act of 2013 that U.S. Congress recently passed allows the FAA to transfer sufficient funds to end employee furloughs and keep these towers open for the remainder of fiscal year 2013, which ends Sept. 30.

The air traffic control tower has operated for 16 hours a day since it opened in 1997. Anoka County-Blaine Airport Manager Joe Harris has received a lot of feedback from pilots since the announcement was made May 10 and said, “It’s a sense of relief right now.”

However, Huss will be closely watching whether the Midwest Air Traffic Control fills the vacant seventh air traffic controller position. All Anoka County-Blaine air traffic controllers are contract employees.

The Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC) hopes the FAA will receive adequate funding in fiscal year 2014 to cover all its basic operating needs without dipping into funds intended for airport capital projects, said MAC spokesperson Patrick Hogan.

“Unfortunately, the FAA is using funding slated for airport improvements to cover the cost of the agency’s operations,” Hogan said. “While we’re happy that the Anoka County-Blaine Airport tower will continue to operate at least through the end of September, we are concerned about the unprecedented use of airport improvement program funds for such purposes.”

The Reducing Flight Delays Act of 2013 was introduced by U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and is similar to legislation that U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota, introduced earlier this year.

“Air traffic control towers are critical to maintaining safety in our skies and ensuring local airports can operate efficiently and effectively,” Klobuchar said.

The Anoka County Composite Squadron Civil Air Patrol spent $500 on a portable collision avoidance system. Civil Air Patrol Capt. Don Raleigh was not scared about the tower closure because these are highly trained pilots landing and taking off, but he felt another safeguard was worth it.

This portable device attached by Velcro to the plane dashboard can tell the pilot of the Civil Air Patrol’s Cessna 172 that seats four the altitude and distance from other planes.

It was not easy to spend this $500 because the Civil Air Patrol is a volunteer organization with limited funds. It does various outreach fundraisers such as bagging groceries at Cub Foods.

“It’s not that I had to do this, but as a commander responsible for the safety of my unit, I felt this was a good investment,” Raleigh said.

Arlene Henderson, a volunteer with the local Civil Air Patrol, said during a March 30 volunteer open house event at Blaine City Hall that she had been planning to take flying lessons in six months at the airport and would personally feel more comfortable flying into an airport that had air traffic controllers to help her locate the other planes and land safely.

“I feel it’s an extra layer of protection to have someone out there watching and guiding me in,” she said.

According to Wayne Vallevand, one of the air traffic controllers at the local airport, there is a surface manager that talks to pilots on the runway before departure and after they arrive and a separate person that communicates with pilots in the air. Any pilot who enters their airspace has to report in.

Air traffic at the Anoka County-Blaine Airport is much lower than it used to be, although numbers have increased a little in recent years after Key Air Twin Cities and Cirrus opened fixed based operations at the airport.

According to Harris, there were 143,950 airport operations in 1998, 132,144 in 2003, 69,406 in 2008 and 79,190 in 2012. Numbers collected before the tower opened in 1997 are just estimates, but the 1993 calculation was 195,650 operations. He noted that there are some days where the airport will see well over 500 takeoffs and landings. Harris does not have a good breakdown on how much of that is jet traffic.

Eric Hagen is at eric.hagen@ecm-inc.com

up arrow