Friday, January 13, 2006

Cut in airport tower hours OK'd

Express Staff Writer

Members of the Friedman Memorial Airport Authority found themselves juggling their concerns between "stressed and overworked" airport control tower personnel and the operational demands of SkyWest Airlines when faced Tuesday night with requests to trim operating hours of the tower.

Chief tower controller Dan Gearhart asked the board to reduce daily operating time by two hours -- changing the 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. schedule to 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.

He explained he would then use the two nighttime hours to increase on-duty personnel during the daytime when aircraft traffic is heavier.

But the board expressed concern about SkyWest's last arriving flight at 9:45 p.m. -- whether the airline would need a controller on duty to clear the aircraft for landing.

However, as Airport Manager Rick Baird pointed out, the last SkyWest flight has been known to be an hour or more late on occasion when the tower was closed.

Thereupon the board voted to authorize a tower closing at 10 p.m., instructing Baird to contact SkyWest and discuss a further shrinking of hours to 9 p.m. in the summer when daylight hours are later.

Baird also footnoted the discussion by observing that adjustable operating hours would allow more flexible tower control over ground and air movements, and the FAA would support any decision made by the Airport Authority.

Friedman's tower is operated by a private company, Serco, under contract to the Federal Aviation Administration.

Retired airline pilot Larry Isham told the board that airlines frequently operate in and out of fields without towers -- that he made nighttime Boeing 737 flights into airports without tower controls.

The problem, as outlined by Gearhart, is that tower personnel are required to work only a prescribed number of hours on a shift and must have prescribed hours off duty. He said some of his controllers live in Twin Falls because of housing costs in the Wood River Valley. The full complement is Gearhart as manager and part-time controller, as well as five controllers.

Because of the present 16-hour tower operation, he lacks sufficient personnel when traffic demand is heaviest.

Hailey Mayor Susan McBryant, an authority member, suggested a summer-winter schedule to allow a 9 p.m. closing.

Another member, Len Harlig, worried whether SkyWest might cancel the last flight if the tower isn't manned. He also proposed the airport study hiring a sixth operator. But Baird said that should be left to Serco because of the contractual arrangement with the FAA.

After several members hinted about "stressed and overworked" tower personnel, Blaine County Commissioner Tom Bowman, also a board member, asked, "Is that a condition we want to encourage" with current operating hours?

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