News From Terre Haute, Indiana

February 27, 2013

Terre Haute International Airport preparing for potential staffing cuts

Arthur Foulkes
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — Potential “sequester” budget cuts set to take effect Friday could reduce air traffic control tower staffing at Terre Haute International Airport–Hulman Field, an airport official said Tuesday.

The local airport is on a list of 200 smaller airports facing potential cutbacks in staffing that would mostly eliminate overnight shifts in control towers from which controllers handle fewer than 150,000 flights per year.

The Terre Haute airport fits in that category, said executive director Bill McKown. As a result, contingency plans are already in place in the event the tower is not staffed at night, he said.

“We are prepared for that,” McKown said Tuesday.

The Department of Transportation issued the list of 200 airports last week. Only 100 of the airports are expected to actually face cuts in tower staffing.

Unstaffed control towers – or even towerless – airports are not uncommon, McKown noted. When no tower service is available, pilots are trained to act as their own air traffic controllers by communicating with each other over universal frequency radio communications, he said.

“That’s part of your flight training,” McKown said. “As a matter of fact, that’s part of your basic training.”

Pilots approaching an airfield broadcast over a universal frequency, letting any other pilots in the area know of their arrival, McKown said. Other pilots in the area will communicate with each other, he said.

“There’s no drop in safety,” McKown said. “We have a lot of untowered airports throughout the U.S. It’s incumbent upon pilots that are coming to the field to broadcast their intentions.”

Talks are expected to start Friday between U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and the union representing air traffic controllers.

If the cuts come to Hulman Field, they will only be felt in the Federal Aviation Administration-staffed flight control tower, McKown said, adding that the proposed cuts are not expected to affect “approach control” staff – FAA controllers who deal with aircraft flying to Indianapolis or elsewhere in a much larger region than the immediate sky around Terre Haute International.

The cuts will also not affect staffing of the airport itself, which is governed by the Terre Haute Airport Authority, which is its own independent taxing entity and receives funding through its own special taxing area – operating much like a Tax Increment Finance district elsewhere in the city.

“Our operations will remain status quo,” McKown said. “Definitely on the airport side, no job losses at all.”

Projects funded by the FAA at Hulman Field, including runway rehabilitation, are not expected to be affected by the sequester in the near-term, McKown noted.

Runway lights will remain on at night whether or not air traffic controllers are present, the airport director said.



Reporter Arthur Foulkes can be reached at 812-231-4232 or arthur.foulkes@tribstar.com