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Funding recommended for contract control towers

Control tower Waukegan Regional Airport. | Sun-Times Media

Control tower at at Waukegan Regional Airport. | Sun-Times Media

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Updated: August 11, 2013 6:33AM

Developments in recent weeks have produced a more promising forecast for both continued operations at the Waukegan Regional Airport control tower and the status of the annual Wings Over Waukegan Air Show.

Late last month, officials at Waukegan Regional learned that both the House and Senate Appropriations Committees have recommended funding in the 2014 fiscal year for contract control towers, a designation that includes the Waukegan tower.

Earlier this year, Waukegan Regional was one of 149 airports nationwide targeted to lose tower staffing due to sequestration cuts affecting the Federal Aviation Administration. An April 1 shutdown came and went after Congress drew $253 million in Airport Improvement (AIP) funds to keep the towers open through summer.

“We never did have to shut down, but it was close,” Waukegan Regional manager Jim Stanczak said Tuesday, July 9. “They provided funding through the AIP fund, which they’re not supposed to touch, so at this point we’re funded through Sept. 30.”

Beyond that, the Congressional committees proposed annual spending bills for the Department of Transportation and the FAA that include at least $140 million for the Contract Tower Program to operate through Sept. 30, 2014.

U.S. Contract Tower Association (USCTA) Executive Director J. Spencer Dickerson said in a statement that he hopes both sides of the Congressional aisle realize that local air traffic control “is a high priority and too important to be targeted for disproportionate funding cuts.”

“The inclusion of $140 million (is) significant,” Dickerson added, “and reaffirms the strong support that exists in Congress for keeping contract towers open well into the future, even under difficult budget circumstances.”

Waukegan Regional, which handled 46,000 flight operations in 2011 and has averaged around that number in recent years, would not have had to shut down if its tower had lost its contracted employees. Flights in and out of the facility would have been handled by the FAA’s Terminal Radar Approach Control in Elgin.

Similarly, the annual Wings Over Waukegan event, scheduled for Sept. 7, wasn’t threatened by the shutdown, with Stanczak explaining that the show’s air boss controls operations that day. The airport is basically closed to routine traffic during the show, with tower personnel only responsible for any incoming emergencies.

Plans for the air show continued last week when the Waukegan City Council authorized the temporary closure of Green Bay Road on the airport’s west side to allow for an expanded performance zone.

At the 2012 show, the performers in need of a larger airspace included an F-18 Superhornet from the U.S. Navy and an A-10 Thunderbolt from the U.S. Air Force, but Stanczak said it looks like federal budget cuts have ruled out a return engagement.

“At this point, there won’t be any active military performers. We’ll have the local (aerobatic) teams,” Stanczak said, adding that “we’re going to try to stage a pyrotechnic show, but we’re still working on that.”

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