EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

March 6, 2013

Federal cuts to close air traffic control tower

By Paul Tennant

---- — NORTH ANDOVER — The continuing federal budget impasse has forced the closing of the air traffic control tower at Lawrence Municipal Airport.

This could have an adverse effect on safety, according to Paul Nugent, air traffic control manager at the airport. Nugent told The Eagle-Tribune he has received notice that the tower will close April 7 and the five air traffic controllers who work under him will be laid off.

Airports in Beverly, Norwood, New Bedford, Worcester and Westfield face a similar plight, he said. The air traffic controllers guide pilots that are landing at and taking off from the airport.

“They make sure nothing is on the runway,” among other services, Nugent explained.

The lack of a control tower will not shut down the airport, Nugent said. The tower at Lawrence Municipal operates from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. each day.

Planes use the airport between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m., Nugent noted. A pilot can activate the runway lights at night and report his or position to other fliers, he said.

Landing and taking off, however, are much easier when an air traffic controller can, for example, see a deer or a fuel truck on the runway and warn the pilot, Nugent pointed out.

“The pilots are going to be on their own to issue traffic advisory positions,” he said. “If somebody doesn’t broadcast their position you would not know they are there.”

Lawrence Municipal Airport has become much busier during the past several years. Massachusetts State Police and Boston Medflight helicopters use the airport as do numerous corporate jets, Nugent noted.

The facility actually boasts more flight activity — landings and takeoffs — than Manchester-Boston Regional Airport.

Nugent works for Midwest Air Traffic Control, which has a contract from the Federal Aviation Administration to operate the local tower.

He called the budget reductions — the so-called “sequestration cuts” — “irresponsible.”

“Safety is diminished. There is no doubt about it in my mind,” he warned.

Tim Campbell owns and operates Eagle East, a company that provides flight training as well as a place where people can keep their aircraft.

“As a marina is for boats, we are for airplanes,” he explained.

“Not having them (air traffic controllers) here will be an adjustment,” Campbell said. Landing or taking off with the assistance of a traffic controller is bound to be much easier than relying entirely on one’s own skills, he said.

There are several airports, including those in Rochester, N.H., Fitchburg and Taunton, that do not have control towers, Campbell said.

“We are not going to have planes crashing into each other,” he said. The pilots who use the local airport have a high degree of professionalism and communicate well with each other in the air, he said.

Still, Nugent and his crew will be missed greatly, he said.