SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

January 7, 2014

Column: Closing air tower would be irresponsible

Robert Mezzetti and Paul A. Vitale
The Salem News

---- — The following responses reference comments made by Keith Lucy and George Stankiewicz in the Saturday, Dec. 7, Salem News Letters to the Editor. In Mr. Lucy’s comments, he said the math behind funding the Beverly airport didn’t add up. That the (approximately) 60,000 operations is well below the 150,000 operations set by FAA to continue funding and that the record month of 157 commercial operations extrapolated per year fell far short of the 10,000 commercial operations set by FAA guidelines for continued FAA funding. Mr. Lucy further found the 60,000 operations figure “an absolute absurdity.” The Beverly Airport Commission offers these facts to set the record straight.

Mr. Lucy: “The 60,000 operations is well below the 150,000 operations set by FAA to continue funding.”

Answer: Incorrect. The 150,000-operation limit was purposely established by the FAA to close those towers in order to save money and meet their sequestration budget limitations. Prior to sequestration, FAA used a cost/benefit analysis to determine whether a new tower could be opened or an existing tower would be closed. This is a ratio of the cost of operating a control tower versus how much safety is increased with the operation of the control tower. While total yearly operations are to some degree evaluated in this analysis, there is no arbitrary number in this consideration. The cost/benefit analysis is more heavily weighted toward complexity of operations at the airport (i.e. multiple runways, mix of traffic between slow and fast aircraft, peak hours operations, and the complexity of multiple instrument approaches). While the total number of operations at the airport has decreased since the control tower opened in 1977, the complexity of operations has dramatically increased. When Congress passed legislation to continue funding contract towers in June, the FAA dropped the 150,000 limited and reverted to its established policy of cost/benefit analysis. Beverly tower met the cost/benefit threshold when it opened in 1977 and it continues to meet the criteria to this day.

Mr. Lucy: “The record month of 157 (Beverly) commercial operations extrapolated per year fell short of the 10,000 commercial operations per year guidelines set by FAA.”

Answer: Incorrect. Beverly is not a commercial airport; it is a general aviation/corporate facility and does not have commercial operations. A commercial operation is one that provides carriage to the public by aircraft in return for compensation, while a corporate operation is nonpublic carriage by aircraft for corporate owned or operated aircraft. There are no set minimum operations.

Mr. Lucy: “...I find the claim of 60,000 operations annually to be absolute absurdity.”

Answer: Aircraft operations numbers are counted hourly by air traffic controllers and transmitted daily to the FAA. These figures include the landings and take-offs of air taxis (charters), general aviation (personal, corporate and flight training), military, civil air patrol, medical flights, helicopter and blimp operations, etc. In the case of flight training, student pilots are required to fly the traffic pattern around the airport and do repetitive take off and landing operations as part of flight training. A take-off and a landing count as two operations. Beverly Airport averages 60,000 operations per year. We have approximately 150 aircraft based at Beverly Airport with an accumulated value of approximately $85 million. We have approximately $11 million of developed facilities, including hangers, offices and maintenance buildings.

Mr. Lucy: “In my opinion, the airport tower funding should be withheld by the FAA, and the airport funded solely by the operations that actually take place there, or closed permanently.”

Answer: The FAA Contract Tower Program has by its own admission been one of the most cost effective safety programs at FAA for the past three decades. If the Beverly Contract Tower lost its funding it would have a negative impact on air traffic safety at Beverly Municipal Airport. It provides critical safety functions because of the mix of different types of flying, e.g. corporate, flight training, personal, military, and medical flights for patients, organ delivery to and from area hospitals, and in various type aircraft, e.g. jet, helicopter, single engine and twin engine propeller and airship operations. Not only would the level of airport safety drop, there would be other losses, too, including:

Loss of jobs. There would be a domino effect of job loss. The airport flights services operations and other aircraft services providers would lay off people because many corporate aircraft require a control tower at the airports they operate in and out of. Others experiencing job loss may be flight schools, mechanics, aircraft manufacturing, avionics technicians, restaurant personnel, and the contract control tower personnel themselves, who by the way comprise 80 percent military veterans.

Loss of revenue. Not only on the airport, but the surrounding communities, as well, that provide goods and services to the airport, including local restaurants, hotels, car and limo rentals, retail stores, etc. The annual economic benefit Beverly Airport provides (per a recent Mass. Department of Transportation statewide study) is $22 million to the surrounding communities.

Loss of services. Without a control tower, flights carrying ambulatory patients and much-needed human organs and blood may not come to the airport for delivery to local hospitals, business travel would be affected, deliveries of parts and critical medicines may be delayed or not delivered at all by air. Search-and-rescue and disaster relief efforts could be made difficult or eliminated. Based helicopter operations that perform traffic reporting, tours, power line inspections and flight instruction could become complicated.

Mr. Stankiewicz: “Today we have 60,000 movements per year and the many private aircraft that once based at Beverly have left for less strict and less expensive airfields.”

Answer: Incorrect. We pride ourselves on operating a clean, efficient, safe and affordable airport. Based aircraft numbers are down at most general aviation airports across the country because in the past it was less expensive to learn how to fly and learning how to fly was eligible under the G.I. Bill. It is not anymore. Also, it is not just learning how to fly that is more expensive since the 1970s; it’s more expensive for insurance, aviation fuel and renting a plane. What has increased dramatically since the ’70s are the number of corporate/business aircraft and air taxi operations at Beverly Airport. The majority of general aviation airports throughout the country were required to increase safety and security following the events of 911.

Mr. Stankiewicz: “All the airports mentioned in the article that are scheduled for closing are very low-use airports and do not justify an expensive under used control tower ... How important is something if you only need it sometimes ... If it (no tower) worked back then, it can definitely work now with the low activity count.”

Answer: Incorrect. There has been an air traffic control tower at Beverly since 1977. Prior to that, operations consisted mostly of small engine pleasure aircraft. Operations at Beverly Airport are much more complex now than in the ’70s and ’80s. With corporate/business jets, helicopters, blimps, and small private aircraft all using the airport and air space at the same time, air traffic control is more important now than in the past. While severe weather can reduce the number of daily operations to a very low level, operations in good weather conditions can be as many as 50 operations per hour at peak time. FAA’s cost/benefit analysis is based on potential operations and not on current weather conditions. The statement, “How important is something if you only need it sometimes” seems like a very curious statement. What if the police or fire departments were asked to curtail their operations when there was nothing going on at the time?

Air traffic controllers are the eyes and ears of an airport, performing critical collision avoidance, directing traffic to and from Beverly Airport in the air and controlling the activity on the ground, i.e. taxiways, ramps and runways also communicating with aircraft to aircraft and airport maintenance personnel working around the airport. Air traffic controllers also help us perform important safety and security measures throughout the 415-acre airport, including midair collision avoidance procedures and runway incursion avoidance procedures. The United States airport system is part of our national transportation system, which includes our state, and federal highway systems. Massachusetts has 38 airports, three of which are commercial operations — Logan, Bedford and Nantucket. Beverly is the third-busiest general aviation airport in the state.

What price limit does one put on saving lives?

In the past seven years, millions of dollars have been invested in reconstructing runways, taxiways, aircraft ramps, security fencing and lighting, new approach systems and remodeling of our buildings and hangers, moving Beverly airport into the 21st century. All funded by our tenants, Beverly Airport Commission, FAA and state DOT Aviation Division. It would be irresponsible to close the air traffic control tower.

The No. 1 responsibility of airport management and air traffic controllers is the safety and security of the pilots and passengers using our facilities and also the safety of our neighbors.

Robert Mezzetti is the manager of Beverly Airport. Paul A. Vitale is chairman of the Beverly Airport Commission.