Budget cuts cause Waukegan airport tower to close April 1
BY DAN MORAN firstname.lastname@example.org February 28, 2013 7:50PM
Control tower at at Waukegan Regional Airport. | Sun-Times Media
Updated: April 30, 2013 5:35PM
WAUKEGAN — Officials at Waukegan Regional Airport received notice from the Federal Aviation Administration on Thursday that the facility’s control tower is one of 189 nationwide that would close as of April 1 due to the looming automatic spending cuts out of Washington.
All of the targeted facilities handle fewer than 150,000 flight operations per year and utilize “contract towers,” in which the operation is managed by an outside agency. In the case of Waukegan Regional, five employees provided by Midwest Air Traffic Control Service Inc., are currently on site from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily, after which the FAA’s Terminal Radar Approach Control facility in Elgin handles approaches and departures.
Airport Manager Jim Stanczak said Thursday that TRAC would take over full time in the event of a shutdown, which is being proposed by the FAA in response to budget sequestration, a measure that would automatically trim $85 billion in operating funds across the federal government and $600 million from the FAA this year.
“Closing our tower will jeopardize aviation safety and kill jobs in our community,” said Stanczak, adding that Waukegan Regional houses a search-and-rescue unit of the Coast Guard and handles the occasional high-profile visitor, including the aircraft that brought former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to the Chicago area for last summer’s G8 Summit.
Waukegan Regional, which features a 6,000-foot runway, is designated as a reliever airport for both O’Hare and Midway international airports, along with airstrips in Aurora, Lake in the Hills, Lansing, Romeoville, West Chicago and Wheeling. In 2012, the Illinois Department of Transportation’s Division of Aviation named Waukegan Regional its reliever airport of the year, an award that Stanczak said focuses primarily on safety.
“We have a safety action team that meets annually, (including) with the tower pilots,” he said. “We put it on every year stressing safety, and make people aware at all times where everybody is.”
According to IDOT figures from 2011, Waukegan Regional had 188 based aircraft, including 45 corporate jets, and handled 46,000 operations. The number of flight operations is less than half the 94,000 seen in 2004, and has gone down every year since 2004, a factor that Stanczak attributed to both rising fuel prices and post-9/11 restrictions on such things as private flight instruction.
But Stanczak said the McAree Road facility remains a key economic engine in the region. He pointed to IDOT figures that list Waukegan Regional as providing 190 on-site jobs, both full and part-time, and generating $130.3 million in economic output, which includes things like goods and services purchased by airport employees and visitors.
Whether or not any of this would be affected by a tower shutdown is as open a question as whether or not budget sequestration takes place.
The U.S. Contract Tower Association, an affiliate organization of the American Association of Airport Executives , released a statement this week urging Congress and the White House to “reach an agreement that protects vital FAA programs, such as control towers, and limits disruptions to airports and the nation’s aviation system.”
“The Contract Tower Program has a well-established record of success in enhancing air safety and efficiency in communities across the country in a cost-effective manner to taxpayers,” USCTA Executive Director J. Spencer Dickerson said. “The prospect of closing nearly 189 contract towers nationwide along with 49 FAA-staffed towers because of sequestration is inconceivable given the very real impact it would have nationwide, and yet it appears to be a real possibility.”