Glacier Airport Tower Closure Delayed Following Lawsuits

By Beacon Staff

Glacier Park International Airport’s air traffic control tower will remain open until June 15. The Federal Aviation Administration decided to delay the closure of 149 federal contract control towers after airports across the country, including the Flathead Municipal Airport Authority, challenged the decision in court.

On March 22, the FAA announced GPI’s control tower would close in May due to automatic federal budget cuts. If the tower were to close, the area around GPI would revert back to Class E uncontrolled airspace, but planes would still be able to fly. The control tower there opened in 2001.

In a press release from the FAA, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said the delayed closure would give agencies more time to sort out legal challenges and help local airports find ways to fund their own controllers.

“This has been a complex process and we need to get this right,” LaHood said. “Safety is our top priority. We will use this additional time to make sure communities and pilots understand the changes at their local airports.”

In a statement, GPI airport director Cindi Martin welcomed the FAA’s decision. The airport authority filed a lawsuit against the FAA in the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco on March 29 in hopes of keeping the tower open. GPI argued that the FAA did not consider any site-specific operational issues in its decision.

“Today’s decision is a welcome development,” she said, “however the Flathead Municipal Airport Authority will continue to work toward a long term solution which includes continued funding and operation of the federal contract tower at GPI.”

The possibility of closing the GPI tower has concerned both air traffic controllers and Martin, who wrote a letter to FAA administrator Michael Huerta. In the March 12 letter obtained by the Beacon, Martin said closing the tower would “unacceptably compromise safety at GPI.”

Martin said that because of mountainous terrain and unpredictable weather in Northwest Montana, the tower is critical to safe airport operations. The letter also discusses the fact that there is only one runway authorized for use by commercial air carriers, which results in more traffic in a confined and narrow corridor.

The Beacon obtained Martin’s letter to the FAA from Ron Taylor, president of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization.
“This was a technical letter, written to technical people about a technical issue,” Martin said. “We don’t want to alarm the general public that if the airport tower closes that the airport will be less safe. GPI went without a tower for 60 years.”

But Taylor says air traffic at GPI and in Montana has changed since 2001 and a manned tower is critical to maintaining safety.

“What they are doing is unsafe,” Taylor said. “The skies are more complicated now. We’re in the 21st century and they’re referring to air traffic patterns of the 20th century… The most critical part of flying is landing and takeoff and they want to unman that tower? I can’t believe it.”

Taylor said that if the FAA is going to defund the tower, the burden to staff it should shift to GPI. In Martin’s letter, she writes the airport authority cannot pay for its own air traffic controllers.

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