Tower closure threatens aviation program, leaders discuss options


Reporter - Kendall Downing

JACKSON COUNTY, Ill. - Grounded. The air traffic control tower at Southern Illinois Airport in Murphysboro will close in April. That's thanks to the sequester.

But concerns continue to mount from leaders at Southern Illinois University, worried what the loss of the tower will do to their nationally-recognized aviation program.

Tuesday, U.S. Congressman Bill Enyart held a roundtable discussion with campus administrators, professors with the Aviation Management and Flight program, and students. He's pushing to keep the tower open. Enyart said he's sent a letter to the FAA administrator and will follow up with the U.S. Transportation Secretary.

However, time is running out. That's why those at Tuesday's meeting offered up potential solutions for the short term.

Thousands of aviation students have taken flight from the Southern Illinois Airport in Murphysboro.

"They rely on us," said Gary Whitney, Air Traffic Manager.

But the days for Whitney and his staff are numbered, and the future's out of his control.

"Overall, it's sickening. There's no other word to describe it to me," said Whitney.

That was the motivation behind the last-ditch meeting with Rep. Bill Enyart and members of the university and aviation communities.

The aviation program at SIU-Carbondale depends on the tower. If it goes, students will have to fly elsewhere to get tower-to-plane instruction.

That means added costs for current students and a program that's harder to sell to prospective ones.

"The conversations are very difficult, but in the short term, we're committed that things will remain open through the semester," said Rita Cheng, SIU-Carbondale Chancellor.

The Southern Illinois Airport wants the FAA to halt the closure process until May.

In the meantime the university is looking at some state funding alternatives, while also considering taking on some of the financial burden themselves. But if that happens, student fees would increase.

"The concerns go beyond those at the surface," said Enyart.

Enyart said he's hopeful the immediate impact could somehow be lessened.

"I think if the public expresses its concerns, it could be very realistic," said Enyart.

Administrators at SIU do not want to see the tower closed, of course, but they are hopeful the date could be pushed back to May 5th so students could finish up the semester as normal.