The air traffic control tower at the Anoka County-Blaine Airport will remain open through at least the federal 2014 fiscal year thanks to the federal omnibus spending bill that President Barack Obama signed Jan. 17.
Included in the $1.1 trillion spending bill was funding not only for the Anoka County Airport, but for traffic control towers at Flying Cloud, Crystal and St. Cloud as well, according to a press release from the office of U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.
Dave McCauley said flying into an airport without an air traffic control tower “is akin to turning off the traffic signal on a busy roadway.”
The air traffic controllers have to worry about more than the airplanes landing and taking off at the Anoka County Airport. They also have to watch out for the planes flying in the area, said McCauley, who is a member of the Gateway Flying Club that owns a Cessna 172, 177, and 182.
The former Coon Rapids mayor and councilmember and Anoka County commissioner said the air traffic controllers at the Anoka County Airport do a phenomenal job because they are friendly in answering pilot’s questions or pointing out errors instead of being short with them to the point of yelling.
Pilots that McCauley spoke to who have flown into the airport before it got a tower in 1997 were concerned about the prospect of losing it.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) had planned to close 149 air traffic control towers at reliever airports across the country last year as part of the agency’s required $637 million budget cuts under the federal sequester.
Anoka County’s tower under this plan was going to close May 5, 2013, but this kept being delayed when funding became available through The Reducing Flight Delays Act of 2013 that was introduced by U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine.
Joe Harris, manager of the Anoka County-Blaine Airport, said the new funding means the air traffic control tower is funded through at least Sept. 30 of this year. When asked about his concern for tower funding going forward, he said, “There’s always a concern when there isn’t a long-term funding solution.”
Harris said he was encouraged to see the funding come through to keep the tower open for the remainder of the federal fiscal year of 2014 and that this process made people aware of the importance of air traffic control towers at reliever airports.
According to Harris, the Anoka County-Blaine Airport had 76,949 operations in 2013, which includes take-offs and landings, This is slightly down from the 79,190 operations seen in 2012 and much lower than the traffic the airport saw after the tower opened. The first full year the tower was open in 1998, there were 143,950 airport operations, Harris said.
According to Harris, these numbers only include times when the tower is staffed, which is 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. during the winter and 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. the rest of the year. The airport’s tower has six contract employees hired by Midwest Air Traffic Control and not the county, according to Harris.
McCauley believes operations are down because of higher fuel costs and the average age of pilots is going up. He is flying less because of the fuel costs.
Metropolitan Airports Commission spokesperson Patrick Hogan said keeping the air traffic control towers open helps “ensure the safe, efficient operation of general aviation airports across the nation.”
“Airports such as Anoka County-Blaine play a significant role in maintaining an efficient national air transportation system and in generating local business and jobs,” Hogan said. “We very much appreciate efforts by Sen. Klobuchar and other members of Minnesota’s Congressional delegation in keeping all the control towers in the Twin Cities open and operating.”
Eric Hagen is at [email protected]