St. Pete fighting to keep Albert Whitted tower open
ST. PETERSBURG -
The airspace controlled by Albert Whitted Airport includes approach paths for commercial aircraft headed to Tampa International Airport and U.S. Coast Guard planes bound for St. Petersburg-Clearwater International airports.
Fighter jets headed to MacDill Air Force Base also fly over the airport.
That is why airport leaders and some federal lawmakers are warning that plans to close the airport’s control tower are a threat to safety.
“We reside in very complex airspace,” said Airport Manager Rich Lesniak. “One mid-air collision will call this whole thing into question.”
The control tower at the city-owned airport is one of 149 that the Federal Aviation Authority plans to close over a four-week period beginning April 7, a consequence of automatic federal budget cuts that went into effect this month.
Florida Senator Bill Nelson and U.S. Rep. C.W. ‘Bill” Young this week led calls for the FAA to reconsider the closures.
“This decision raises serious public-safety concerns for our region, for the flying public, and for air operations of the United States Coast Guard and MacDill Air Force Base,” Young wrote in a letter sent Friday to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.
Young also questioned why the St. Petersburg airport was not among the 24 airports the FAA reprieved from its original closure list.
Young cited a letter Mayor Bill Foster sent to the FAA asking that the airport be exempted from closing. The letter highlights that pilots of mixed skill levels use Albert Whitted and that student housing for the University of South Florida St. Petersburg lies in the approach path for one airport runway.
“It’s hard for me to believe that there are 24 other contract tower airports that have more serious and unique air safety and operational requirements than Albert Whitted,” Young wrote.
Airplanes land and take off at Albert Whitted 80,000 times a year. In addition, the seven FAA controllers who work at the tower track another 20,000 aircraft through local airspace. The 110-acre airport is rated as the 38th busiest of the 250 airports in the FAA’s Federal Contract Tower Program, which pays for controllers at smaller regional airports.
The FAA also paid $3.1 million for the control tower that was put into service in September 2011.
In addition to safety concerns, airport leaders say losing the control tower is bad for business.
Some air-taxi and chartered corporate jet services are required by their insurance to operate in towered airports. That accounts for as much as 10 percent of the airport’s business, said Lesniak. But the airport manager said he is unsure how much the airport could lose.
Plans to build new corporate hangars to attract more business may also have to be delayed, he said.
Opponents of the planned tower closures argue that FAA officials should have made administrative cuts and taken other steps to reduce costs rather than target regional airports.
The governing board of Felts Field Airport in Spokane, Wash., recently sued the FAA to keep its control tower open. Several other airports, including ones in Punta Gorda, Naples and Salinas, Calif., are considering legal action.
That may be a path that St. Petersburg also takes, according to city legal staff.
“We’re certainly looking at whether that is an option,” said Mark Winn, the city’s chief deputy attorney.