Airport tower closure would affect university's aviation program

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Reporter - Kendall Downing

JACKSON COUNTY, Ill. - The Federal Aviation Administration will close more than 170 air traffic control towers in April because of the sequester. Three of those towers shutting down are in the Local 6 area.

The tower at Paducah's Barkley Regional Airport is on the list. The airport director tells us passengers wouldn't notice a difference if the tower wasn't operational. Memphis would take charge of air traffic, which could pose some slight delays.

The air traffic control tower at the Williamson County Regional Airport in Marion, Illinois will close but not until the end of September. Manager Doug Kimmel said that's because the airport pays a tax of about $57,000 to the federal government each year to keep it open. It's one of 16 across the country that will be shuttered at the end of the fiscal year.

And the tower at the Southern Illinois Airport in Jackson County is slated to close too. But administrators with SIU-Carbondale's aviation program are saying not so fast. If that tower closes, it could pose a safety risk for their students. That's why they are lobbying to keep it open.

Aviation student Anthony Woods checks his plane and gets it ready to go.

"Operating handbook, it's right back here," he said.

He's a junior in the program at SIU-Carbondale and knows if the tower goes dark, it'll make life a lot harder.

"If they close that tower, it's going to have a huge effect on us," said Woods.

Reason being, student fliers will have to keep up with each other in the air, instead of letting the tower help them.

Woods said for younger pilots, it's dangerous.

"They're going to have to learn that at a very busy airfield," he said.

Aviation Management and Flight Department Chair Dr. David NewMyer agrees.

"We won't be able to bunch up our traffic with this tower going away," he said.

NewMyer said that's just one of many issues the closure could bring.

Student flights would have to be spaced out. And some of their courses require communication with a functioning tower. Young pilots would have to fly to find it.

"We're a solution to the pilot shortage, and we can't fly here. That's crazy," said NewMyer.

NewMyer and his colleagues sent a letter to U.S. Senator Dick Durbin. He's hopeful the tower could stay but says if it doesn't, they will adjust.

"We have to respond operationally to make it safe," he said.

NewMyer said the university has until Friday to file an appeal with the Federal Aviation Administration. That's an option they are considering.

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