Renton Airport control tower to be unmanned

Federal budget cuts will close five towers in Washington state.

As of April 4, the Renton Airport will no longer staff its control tower. The airport lies just two miles south, by air, from the southern tip of Mercer Island.

The Department of Transportation’s Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on Friday reached the decision that 149 federal contract towers will close, beginning April 7, as part of the agency’s sequestration implementation plan, including the tower at Renton Municipal Airport.

The airport will remain open, but the traffic control tower will be unstaffed unless Congress acts to end the federal sequester.

Renton Municipal has operated with a control tower since 1943, according to Airport Manager Ryan Zulauf, and the closing of the tower could “compromise” safety in and around the airport.

“We’ve never operated without a tower,” Zulauf said. “We have a complex airspace.”

Seattle control will still maintain the airspace, but due to Renton Municipal’s location in a valley, the Seattle radar does not have a view of the Renton runways.

Though not required by law, pilots will be expected to self-report on takeoffs and landings beginning April 7 and will have to keep an eye out for fellow aircraft over the airport.

“We heard from communities across the country about the importance of their towers, and these were very tough decisions,” said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood in a press release. “Unfortunately, we are faced with a series of difficult choices that we have to make to reach the required cuts under sequestration.”

“We will work with the airports and the operators to ensure the procedures are in place to maintain the high level of safety at non-towered airports,” said FAA Administrator Michael Huerta.

In early March, the FAA proposed closing 189 contract air traffic control towers as part of its plan to meet the $637 million in cuts required under budget sequestration and announced that it would consider keeping open any of these towers if doing so would be in the national interest. Twenty-four of the towers initially proposed for closure will remain open due to national interests.

The national interest considerations included: (1) significant threats to national security as determined by the FAA in consultation with the Department of Defense or the Department of Homeland Security; (2) significant, adverse economic impact that is beyond the impact on a local community; (3) significant impact on multi-state transportation, communication or banking/financial networks; and (4) the extent to which an airport currently served by a contract tower is a critical diversionary airport to a large hub.

In addition to reviewing materials submitted on behalf of towers on the potential closure list, DOT consulted with the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security, and conducted operational assessments of each potential tower closure on the national air transportation system.

Some communities will elect to participate in the FAA’s non-federal tower program and assume the cost of continued, on-site air traffic control services at their airport (see Advisory Circular AC 90-93A). The FAA is committed to facilitating this transition.

The FAA will begin a four-week phased closure of the 149 federal contract towers beginning on April 7.

Zulauf said Renton officials were “still trying to sort this all out” after just getting news of the pending closure, but as of Friday, plans are to shut down the tower.

“What happens next is the tower closes on April 7 unless we can figure out how to fund it with dollars found through the airport,” Zulauf said. “Currently, we don’t have the dollars to operate the tower.”

By the numbers

Here is a breakdown of some numbers for the Renton Municipal Airport for the calendar year 2010.

• 221 average aircraft in operation per day

• 53 percent local general aviation

• 43 percent transient general aviation

• 1 percent air taxi

• Less than 1 percent commercial

• Less than 1 percent military

Brian Beckley is a reporter for the Renton Reporter, a sister publication of the Mercer Island Reporter.