The Federal Aviation Administration notified the county this week that it would no longer fund on-site traffic control for the airport because its mandated cuts are targeting non-airline airports.
McCollum Airport will continue to operate and be staffed by county employees, but planes will have to rely on plane-to-plane communications in order to land, said airport manager Karl Von Hagel.
Von Hagel said it’s akin to a traffic light shutting down at a busy intersection, forcing drivers to operate the way they do at a four-way stop. The concern is that some pilots might decide to bypass the Cobb airport because of real or perceived issues with traffic back-ups or safety concerns, he said.
Yet pilots will be hard-pressed to find many airports in the state with operating control towers outside of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.
Von Hagel said six other Georgia control towers are preparing for closure: Fulton County-Brown Field, Gwinnett County-Briscoe Field in Lawrenceville, Athens-Ben Epps, Columbus Metropolitan, Southwest Georgia Regional in Albany, and Middle Georgia Regional in Macon.
“It will be a reduction in the margin of safety, it will be a less efficient operation, and it’s possible some aircraft owners or pilots will elect to go to other airports that do have control towers,” Von Hagel said. “It’s a standard of safety that everybody makes their independent judgment.”
County Chairman Tim Lee said not only does the move increase safety concerns at the airport, it hurts the county’s efforts with business recruitment. Lee denounced the federal government’s sequestration.
“Yes, they need to look at realistic cuts, but making a unilateral cut for the FAA which takes away control towers in one of our biggest economic development drivers and one of our job creators is just poor sighted on their part,” Lee said.
Seven to lose their jobs
The federal government spends about $700,000 a year for one part-time and six full-time employees to provide air-traffic control services at McCollum Field. Those people will be laid off until further notice, Von Hagel said.
“Right now it’s indefinite,” he said. “We’ve not been given notice of the duration. The issue is it’s part of sequestration, so the reason nobody knows the answer is nobody knows when sequestration cuts will be resolved or if the FAA will have the latitude to make other adjustments.”
Control towers selected for shutdown by the FAA have fewer than 150,000 take-off and landing counts.
“That’s where they put their cut off, so they’re closing 246 control towers across the country. There’s only 515 control towers in the country,” Von Hagel said.
McCollum Field had 62,387 take-offs and landings during 2012.
“It frustrates me that the cuts are being focused on the front lines, on where the safety and efficiency of the operation are felt the most,” Von Hagel said.
No national impact
In its March 5 letter to Cobb County, the FAA claimed the impact of the closure is local and does not affect the national interest. The FAA recommended that the county could pay for air traffic control at its own expense, although Lee said that is not something he is considering.
The airport contributes $112.4 million in local economic impact, with a total of 842 jobs that are dependent on airport activity.
The announcement does not impact the county’s plans to build a new $2.5 million control tower next fall to replace the current one, built in 1995.
“We continue to plan for the new control tower because this perhaps temporary budget situation doesn’t change our needs, and capital funding is not effected by sequestration,” Von Hagel said.