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Yeager Airport director makes case for 24/7 tower staff

Yeager Airport Director Rick Atkinson doesn't think the Federal Aviation Administration will eliminate the midnight shift at the traffic control tower.

But he's taking a proactive stance to make sure, he said during Wednesday's Central Regional Airport Authority meeting.

The FAA is planning to close air traffic control towers around the country because of the looming federal sequester-mandated budget cuts. However, these closures are only affecting towers staffed with contract labor.

The air traffic controllers at Yeager are FAA employees, Atkinson said. The federal agency has to notify all of its employees about any such changes far in advance, said Brian Belcher, director of marketing and air service.

Because of that procedure, Belcher doesn't think the federal agency can eliminate the midnight shift at the airport for at least a year.

"And we hope the federal government will have a solution to this within a year," he said.

Atkinson agreed, but he is still planning to send a list of reasons why the airport traffic control tower at Yeager should be staffed 24 hours a day to the state's delegation to Washington, D.C.

The state's delegation can then forward that list to the FAA, he said.

"We definitely have some safety concerns," Atkinson said.

One of the reasons it would be unsafe to close the air traffic control tower from midnight until 5 a.m. is because Charleston Area Medical Center's General Hospital, as well as Women and Children's Hospital, have helicopter pads.

Aircraft transporting patients to and from the hospitals during all hours of the night use these pads, Atkinson said.

The air traffic controllers at Yeager must watch these aircraft to ensure they do not fly into an incoming or outgoing plane's path, he said.

"We also have an active military base here that has a 24/7 mission," Atkinson added.

The airport also has general aviation aircraft that fly into the airport late at night, he said.

"And we typically do maintenance on our runways during the midnight hours," Atkinson said. "Not having air traffic controllers on the midnight shift makes it more difficult and complicated to run operations."

Atkinson also expressed his dismay at the FAA's decision to close the towers at Lewisburg, Parkersburg and Wheeling's airports.

These towers are operated by contract labor and are not staffed with FAA employees, he said.

However, he pointed out that the Wheeling and Parkersburg airports both function as facilities for the Air National Guard.

"And the Lewisburg airport has large aircraft coming in with people going to the Greenbrier," Atkinson said.

The towers at these airports are expected to close on April 7. 

Atkinson expressed his dismay that federal leaders would play politics with passenger safety.

"If there's a plane crash, how do you explain that?" he asked.

Atkinson did point out the airport had taken steps in case the FAA did decide to eliminate the midnight shift at Yeager's tower.

A pilot coming into the airport can activate an automated light system on the airport's runway, Atkinson said. However, he would still like to make sure the air traffic control tower is staffed all night, he said.

The airport authority also approved a bid for a company to remove trees on Coal Branch Heights during Wednesday's meeting.

The knoll is being leveled to remove an obstruction from the airport's runway. The authority awarded the bid to S&E Clearing for $458,000.

The Varney, W.Va.-based company should begin removing the trees from the hill by April 15. The project should be completed by early June, at which time the authority will be accepting bids to level the hill itself, Atkinson said.

S&E Clearing was the low bid. A total of four companies submitted bids for the project. The company must remove all trees and limbs from the site, he said.

Atkinson was also very pleased with the service provided by Delta Global Services. The company has taken over ground handling of bags for passengers with Delta and United airlines, he said.

Previously, the authority had received numerous complaints about the customer service provided by Regional Elite. It was taking company employees long periods of time, sometimes an hour, to get luggage from the airplanes into the terminal, he said.

"We had complaints about delays in processing bags and inattentive customer service," Atkinson said.

However, those complaints have disappeared since Delta Global Services began processing the luggage in November, he said.

Now it typically takes employees about 209 minutes to process luggage.

"We may have some delays if we have three or four aircraft waiting," Atkinson said. "But that's very rare."       

Contact writer Paul Fallon at paul.fallon@dailymail.com or 304-348-4817. Follow him at www.twitter.com/PaulBFallon.  


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