As the COVID-19 pandemic has slowed commercial air traffic to a trickle, the Federal Aeronautics Administration announced last week it would be cutting the number of hours for air traffic controllers at the Casper/Natrona County International Airport by half.
According to an FAA document provided to the Star-Tribune, the reduction of hours will affect 115 primarily rural, small airports nationwide, many of whom have seen significant reductions in flight traffic numbers resulting from the pandemic. As such, they have an increased ability to allow air traffic control employees to social distance from one another in off-peak hours, a decision the FAA said in a news release could help reduce the possibility of temporary tower closures due to COVID-19 exposures.
While targeted primarily toward airports with steep declines in traffic, the top-down directive from Washington D.C. has caused some alarm among those in the local aeronautics community, who fear the reductions could create a potential safety hazard and – long-term – could result in a permanently reduced level of service at the airport. Casper’s airport, which has experienced a 38 percent decline in traffic as of Wednesday, will see its air traffic controller hours dropped from a 16-hour day to an 8-hour day, meaning fewer hours pilots will be available to receive guidance upon takeoff and landing.
Though the FAA announced it anticipates little interruptions to service, the reduction in hours potentially leaves a number of pilots at-risk in emergency situations, says local airline pilot and Wyoming state legislator Joe MacGuire, particularly given the long distances between airports and the unpredictable weather patterns that define air travel in the Mountain West.
“Back in the Midwest and back east, there are so many airports that are in close proximity to one another that, if they close the amount of hours on one tower, you can go somewhere else with no problem, when there is a problem,” MacGuire said. “In Central Wyoming, if you’re going from Denver to Riverton, for example, and things start to get close, you really need Casper to be open all the way – I’m talking crash and fire rescue, your approaches, the tower, the terminal, everything. Our problem in Wyoming is that Casper is the only place with the full gamut of services … we’re it.”
“If you can’t get into Casper, it’s a long haul to Billings, Denver, Rapid City, or Salt Lake,” he added. “Those are really the only options for you.”
While the FAA has said it anticipated the changes would not have any impact on operations and would be temporary, the announcement has caused concern for others who – over the years – have watched the FAA reduce the number of approaches and even usable runways at the airport, never to replace them. A recent example occurred earlier this year when the FAA proposed eliminating two additional approaches at the Casper airport, only to rescind its decision after public pressure.
With the state economy already reeling from the impacts of COVID-19, MacGuire said Wyoming cannot afford any more hits to the reliability of critical infrastructure it will likely need to aid in its recovery.
“The history has always been take away and not replace,” MacGuire said. “That’s something we would like to avoid.”
While the FAA said it would be evaluating the needs at its airports over the coming months, Glenn Januska, the airport’s director, said he hopes the federal agency comes to the understanding that some airports have different needs and, down the line, could reconsider its position and potentially allow public health decisions to be made locally.
“Our airport is open 24 hours a day,” he added. “We don’t have a 24-hour tower, but we obviously have operations that happen in a non-tower environment. Those operations can occur, but the tower provides a critical safety benefit to the pilots. Nobody wants to see those safety services and benefits go away.”