FAA to close towers at Brainard, Tweed, other Connecticut airports

Washington – The Federal Aviation Administration has notified six Connecticut airports that it will close their control towers effective April 7 due to federal budget cuts.

The shuttering of air towers at Hartford’s Brainard Airport, Stratford’s Igor I. Sikorsky Airport, Tweed-New Haven Regional Airport, Danbury Municipal Airport, Waterbury-Oxford Airport and Groton-New London Airport will not close those facilities.

But it will leave only one Connecticut airport, Hartford’s Bradley International, with an operating air traffic control tower after April 7.

Pilots flying into the state’s other airports will have to navigate by sight.

The “see and avoid” method of flying could pose dangers, said John Ricci, airport manager at Igor I. Sikorsky Airport.

“It would certainly impair safety to a certain degree,” he said. “Pilots would have to operate a little bit more cautiously.”

The Connecticut airports are losing their air control towers because The FAA has had to find $627 million in savings in its $16 billion budget since automatic spending cuts, known as sequestration, took effect last week.

The FAA decided to target airports that have fewer than 150,000  operations,  or airplane landings, a year.  About 170  airports across the nation will be affected.

The airports losing their towers in Connecticut have from 70,000 to 85,000 operations a year.

They also have from five to eight air traffic controllers working seven days a week, 24 hours a day.

Michael Safranek, assistant airport administrator at Danbury Municipal Airport, said without help from the airports six controllers,  planes will have to look out for each other and cede the right of way “much like cars at a four-way stop.”

“There’s no question there will be an impact,” he said.

None of Connecticut’s smaller airports, with the exception of the one in New Haven, host commercial airlines. Air traffic at the smaller airports is largely from private planes and charters. Some host flying schools and have helipads.

Oxford First Selectman George Temple said the facilities are an important part of the community and often used by large aircraft.

He pointed out that last year, Tenzin Gyataso, the 14th Dalai Lama and spiritual leader of Tibet, flew into the Waterbury-Oxford Airport before heading to an event at Western Connecticut State University.

“This is a mistake,” Temple said of the tower closures. “But the federal government has made them before.”

The American Association of Airport Executives was part of a coalition that included pilots and local officials lobbying the FAA to keep the towers open.

The coalition also ran a public relations campaign to provoke protests against the closures.

In a memo to members late last month, AAAE President Spencer Dickerson said “the message to the media must be simple.”

“Closing our tower will jeopardize aviation safety and cost jobs in our communities,” his memo said.

The air traffic controllers at Connecticut’s smaller airports are not federal employees, but contract workers for a company called Midwest Air Traffic Control that is headquartered in Kansas.

But the FAA has also notified the majority of the 47,000 federal air traffic controllers and other employees this week that they will be furloughed, or placed for days on leave without pay.

Those furloughs , combined with expected forced leaves of Transportation Security Administration employees, could result in delayed flights and long lines at airports.

But Bradley International spokesman John Wallace said the airport officials were not advised by the FAA of the furlough plans and he does not know how they will impact operations.