Cobb, Gwinnett airport control towers to close, Fulton tower stays open

Air traffic control towers at airports in Cobb and Gwinnett will close as the Federal Aviation Administration shuts down 149 towers at small airports across the nation due to federal budget cuts. But Fulton County’s control tower, which was also at risk, will survive the cuts.

The control towers at Cobb’s McCollum Field and Gwinnett’s Briscoe Field are set to close as part of the FAA’s plan to meet $637 million in cuts under the automatic budget cuts known as sequestration. The airports will continue to operate, as many airports do, without control towers.

In Gwinnett County’s unsuccessful bid to keep the Briscoe Field tower open, county administrator Glenn Stephens wrote to the FAA that closing the tower “could jeopardize the safety and efficiency of airport operations both locally and regionally.”

But the Federal Aviation Administration pledged to work “to ensure the procedures are in place to maintain the high level of safety at non-towered airports.”

The 149 towers will be shut down in phases over a four-week period starting April 7.

A total of five airports in Georgia will lose their tower operations, including Athens/Ben Epps, Middle Georgia Regional in Macon and Southwest Georgia Regional in Albany. Those airports have some airline service.

“We heard from communities across the country about the importance of their towers, and these were very tough decisions,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood in a written statement. “Unfortunately, we are faced with a series of difficult choices that we have to make to reach the required cuts under sequestration.”

At airports without control towers, pilots communicate with each other on the same radio frequency.

On Friday, Gwinnett County said it’s unclear what impact its tower closure will have on flight operations. The county said it would maintain all other safety and operational measures at the airport beyond the control tower.

McCollum Field airport manager Karl Von Hagel plans to transition into an airport "that will operate safely as an uncontrolled airfield." The Cobb airport is in the middle of plans to build a new control tower. Von Hagel said the FAA did not address how long the closure would last, and the airport plans to evaluate its tower project at each development milestone, to "determine the appropriate course of action with the information available at the time."

Jeff Agur, vice-chair of the Georgia Business Aviation Association, is concerned about the impact on airports losing tower operations. Some business aircraft prefer flying into an airport with a tower, and the number of flights and amount of fuel sales are important economic factors in an airport’s viability.

“We’re certainly concerned about what that might mean to a particular airport” that loses its tower operations, Agur said.

Agur said from a safety standpoint, “operating in and out of non-towered airports is very common.” But having a tower “is another level of comfort in the operations” to ensure proper routing and communications.

The National Air Traffic Controllers Association issued a statement saying the control tower closures “will reduce the overall margin of safety of our entire aviation system,” attributing the decision to “partisan posturing in Washington that led to sequestration.”

Due to national interest, Fulton County Charlie Brown Field’s control tower was one of 24 towers to remain open instead of closing as previously proposed.

While Gwinnett County made a two-page appeal to the FAA to keep its tower open, a message from Charlie Brown Field’s airport manager Douglas Barrett to the FAA was only two paragraphs long.

“I find it inconceivable that our contract tower is scheduled for closure,” Barrett wrote. “The very fact that this major [general aviation] airport is located on the proverbial door step of [Hartsfield-Jackson International] should be enough to maintain tower operations.”

Barrett thinks the FAA also reviewed data and letters from the airport’s tenants and others. Firms including Coca-Cola Co. and Home Depot operate at Charlie Brown Field.

DeKalb Peachtree Airport, the busiest of the general aviation airports in metro Atlanta, and Hartsfield-Jackson International, the world’s busiest airport, were not on the list of towers at risk of closure.

Meanwhile, FAA employees have also been told they will have to take unpaid time off, which has some concerned about the potential for flight delays.