Mike Nichols Column: Budget Cuts Are Not a Wing and a Prayer
March 25, 2013
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  • ByMike Nichols

    Jim Retzlaff has a pretty basic observation about pilots that a lot of people seem to have forgotten:

    “We don’t want to die.”

    I know where you think I’m going with this. You think I am going to start carping about the Federal Aviation Administration’s intention to cut funding for air traffic control towers at smaller airports all around the country due to so-called federal budget sequestration.

    The feds initially named a bunch of Wisconsin airports that could lose out, including those in Mosinee, Eau Claire, Kenosha, Janesville, LaCrosse, Milwaukee’s Timmerman Field, Oshkosh and Waukesha, although by the time this is published some of those places may have been taken off the list.

    Timmerman Field alone reportedly has approximately 31,000 take-offs and landings per year, after all. Waukesha reportedly has 57,000. Those seems like enormous numbers of planes flying haphazardly up and down and in and out and potentially right into one another.

    Except that the West Bend Municipal Airport in Washington County – which Retzlaff runs – appears to have at least as much traffic as Timmerman does, and the folks there don’t have a control tower. Nor do they need one, according to Retzlaff, who is a pilot himself. He and his fellow fliers would very much like to stay alive. But they don’t think they need a federally funded control tower to do it.

    Neither, he thinks, do at least some other places that already have one.

    “There are some control towers at some places that I don’t think are probably needed that much,” said Retzlaff, who declined to name other specific airports.

    It’s not like pilots flying in to “uncontrolled” airports are just winging it. They are able to communicate with each other on specific radio frequencies and have standard procedures they use to land and take-off safely. In fact, there are all sorts of uncontrolled airports all over the place already, though most are tiny.

    Retzlaff left me convinced that if West Bend can operate without a tower, at least some other places its size or smaller can as well – although you hope the FAA is considering local differences among them.

    Dan Gerard, the chief flight instructor for Gran-Aire, the private business that operates the publicly owned Timmerman Field, made me wonder if that’s happening; and he also made he laugh.

    He had some decent arguments about everything from safety to the impact on other airports to the impact on the nearby, densely populated, urban area. But his most succinct rebuttal of the FAA was in an email in which he pointed out that the FAA published a list of places that might lose funding.

    Among the unfortunate airports on the list: Timmerman Field in “Milwaukie.”

    If they can’t even spell it, you have to wonder if they know anything about it.

    That said, you have to put a little faith in guys like Retzlaff, who don’t want to die and don’t necessarily think the FAA wants the rest of us to either.

    There are airports considerably smaller than West Bend that still have towers. James Olson, director of operations and maintenance at Central Wisconsin Airport in Mosinee, said CWA has only about 15,000 take-offs and landings, for instance. A lot of them involve airline flights and he made an argument that the small airport should retain FAA funding for its tower. Losing it would increase the work of air traffic controllers in the Twin Cities, he said.

    At the same time, he conceded that there is “not really” a safety concern about losing the tower.

    “I can’t say it will be less safe than it is now,” he said.

    That’s an honest and admirable admission, and one that other folks in all sorts of upcoming budget battles beyond the FAA might want to remember: Budget cuts won’t kill us.