Brian Nicholson, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — Ed Brundage, the air traffic manager at the Ogden-Hinckley Airport, said Friday the airport's controllers still don't know whether the tower will be shut down next month as a result of federal budget cuts.
"All I can tell you is the official word we have right now is we are open until June 15," Brundage said. "We just have to keep concentrating on the job, keeping the airplanes separated. It's frustrating not knowing."
Rep. Rob Bishop and Sen. Mike Lee, both R-Utah, share that sentiment. They sent a letter Friday to the head of the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Federal Aviation Administration seeking answers.
The closures of 149 federal contract towers around the country, including at the Ogden and Provo airports, were announced in March by the FAA in response to the mandatory budgets cuts known as sequestration.
But the initial date for shutting down the towers was postponed and reports surfaced that some or all of the towers would be spared, especially those deemed key to the military, such as Ogden.
Ogden is one of 38 of the towers on the list whose closures would result in a "severe" impact to military operations by the Department of Defense. However, the FAA has only removed 17 of those towers from the closure list, according to Lee and Bishop.
"I don't know what they're doing," Bishop said. "There is a legitimate military and public safety issue."
The Defense Department stated in an impact assessment that closing the Ogden tower would cause some flying operations at Hill Air Force Base to "revert to an uncontrolled airfield criteria or cease altogether," affecting pilot training.
The closure would also increase the workload on Air Force personnel at the same time civilian controllers are being furloughed, also as a result of the budget cuts, and the base "may not be able to support the additional workload."
Brundage said the Ogden tower routinely redirects civilian planes that mistake HAFB runways for the local airport less than 3 miles away. With jet fighters taking off and landing from HAFB, he said such a mixup "could be ugly" if not corrected.
"That happens at least once a week," Brundage said, most recently on Thursday night. "They see that long runway at Hill, and it's enticing. If we weren't here, they'd just keep going."
Lee and Bishop are asking the administration officials in their letter to explain how the FAA decided to keep some towers on the closure list despite the concerns raised by the Defense Department.
Although the Defense Department assessment was transmitted to the Department of Transportation on March 21, Lee's office was told by an FAA official that "no feedback" was provided on the Ogden tower.
Yet, the letter points out, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta had testified before a Senate committee that the Defense Department had been consulted about all the towers on the list and every "priority tower would be kept open."
The letter also notes that the Reducing Flight Delays Act recently passed by Congress was intended to prevent both controller furloughs and tower closures through the budget year.
"Our highest priority is ensuring the safety of our service members and those who utilize these contract towers," the letter concludes. "This is a serious matter and we request your attention and prompt reply."
Bishop said while he is optimistic both Ogden and Provo will ultimately not be closed, he wants "confirmation to come from somebody firsthand," rather than through media reports quoting unnamed officials and rumors.
"I don't think they've singled out Utah. I do think there may have been politics involved in it," Bishop said, calling the tower closures "a decision that is more political than justified."
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