Effort to keep air towers open focuses on Tweed

Washington – When it comes to Connecticut’s small airports, it seems not all of them are equal in the eyes of Rep. Rosa DeLauro and the state’s U.S. senators.

Sens. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Chris Murphy, D-Conn., joined DeLauro, D-3rd District, Friday in a plea to the Federal Aviation Administration to keep the air control tower open at Tweed-New Haven Regional Airport.

Tweed is one of six Connecticut airports slated to lose air traffic controllers on April 7 because the FAA must cut $627 million from its budget due to across-the-board budget cuts known as sequester.

The other facilities affected are Hartford’s Brainard Airport, Stratford’s Igor I. Sikorsky Airport, Danbury Municipal Airport, Waterbury-Oxford Airport and Groton-New London Airport.

Blumenthal, Murphy and DeLauro wrote FAA Administrator Michael Huerta that they are concerned planned tower closures will pose a safety risk. But they said they wanted Huerta “in particular” to consider the impact of closing Tweed’s tower.

“We believe that public health could be at significant risk should this tower close,” a joint letter to Huerta said. “The Tweed tower services Yale-New Haven Hospital, not just for organ donation flights, but also for the hospital’s helipad. We have been told by local officials that the “Life Star” flights to and from this helipad for medical emergencies could be affected if the tower were to close.”

They also pointed out Tweed would be the only airport with commercial air services to lose a tower in New England.

US Airways operates four daily flights between New Haven and Philadelphia International Airport.

“In short, Tweed is a major economic engine and public safety asset for the City of New Haven and the region. We should not put safety, jobs, or vital commercial air service at the Tweed airport at risk,” the lawmaker’s letter said.

Closing the towers won’t stop air traffic at Tweed or any other Connecticut airport.

But if the FAA’s plan goes into effect, only one Connecticut airport, Hartford’s Bradley International, will have an operating air traffic control tower after April 7.

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

The FAA on March 5 sent notice to all “contract tower airports” or those whose towers are staffed by contracted controllers and not FAA employees, that had fewer than 150,000 flights a year that they would lose their towers.

Some 170 airports across the nation, including the six contract tower airports in Connecticut, received the letter.

The FAA gave these airports until March 13 to make a case that would take them off the hit list. That’s what Connecticut’s lawmakers are doing for Tweed.

“Negative impact on the nation’s interests is the only criterion the FAA will use in deciding to continue services at an airport that falls below the activity threshold,” the FAA’s letter to airports said.

Blumenthal press secretary Nu Wexler, said Tweed was given priority because its “the only airport in New England with commercial service that is on the list of FAA closures and its tower services Yale-New Haven Hospital — not just for organ donation flights — but also for the hospital’s helipad.”

But Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton, a Republican, said the congressional Democrats’ vigorous defense of Tweed should extend to Danbury Municipal Airport and all the state’s airports.

“They should be making the argument for all airfields,” he said.

Boughton also said “in the short-term” New York’s flight control system could help pilots navigate into Danbury Municipal.

“But in the long-term it’s not good and could pose a safety risk,” Boughton said.

John Wallace, spokesman for Connecticut’s state-owned airports, Bradley International, Brainard and Waterbury-Oxford, said he was unaware of the lawmakers’ letter on Tweed’s behalf and does not know why their efforts do not extend to other airports.

“It’s a good question,” he said.

Terry Keller Jr., a flight instructor at Brainard Airport, said a shutdown of the facility’s tower would not affect his work.

But he’s been calling air traffic controllers and pilots across the nation, trying to collect 100,000 signatures on a petition aimed at persuading the FAA to reverse its decision to close towers.

“I’m worried about safety,” Keller said.

He said he feels “insulted” that Connecticut’s lawmakers favor Tweed in their efforts to keep towers operating.

“They should fight for all of them,” he said.