Westmoreland County commissioners were scheduled to meet this week with congressional representatives in Washington, D.C., in an effort to keep the control tower open at Arnold Palmer Regional Airport.
Because of mandatory federal budget cuts under sequestration, the Federal Aviation Administration announced in March that 149 control towers at small airports around the country -- including the airport near Latrobe -- will be shut down.
Originally, the cuts were to take effect in May but they have been postponed until June 15.
Charles Anderson, chairman of the county commissioners, and Commissioner Tyler Courtney planned to meet with U.S. Reps. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, and Keith Rothfus, R-Sewickley, as well as U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Blair, chairman of the House Committee on Transportation.
"Our argument will be that this is a joint county and federal project, and this tower is not costing them a whole lot," Mr. Anderson said. "The county airport authority has paid for the radio equipment in the tower, while the FAA pays for the employees."
The tower is open from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. seven days a week and normally has two FAA employees on duty, said Don Rossi, chairman of the Westmoreland County Airport Authority.
Spirit Airlines operates daily nonstop flights from the airport to Orlando and Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and Myrtle Beach, S.C. In July, it plans to begin daily nonstop flights to Dallas.
The airline said it plans to continue a normal schedule even if the airport tower shuts down.
"As always, the safety of our customers and crews is top priority," the airline said in a statement. "Spirit is already authorized by the FAA to operate at Arnold Palmer Regional Airport when the control tower is closed. As such, the airline follows FAA-approved procedures to ensure safe operations without a control tower."
Mr. Rossi said, "Our plan is to keep the control tower open, regardless of what Congress does."
The control tower does not have radar to monitor air traffic in the area -- it depends on the John Murtha Johnstown-Cambria County Airport for that.
"Our tower monitors ground activity and conditions at our airport to assist in landings and takeoffs, to make sure the large planes and smaller planes are kept segregated," Mr. Rossi said.
Most of the planes, whether commercial or private, use the same airstrip to take off and land, although the airport has a second, smaller airstrip.
Spirit often uses jets that seat 150 passengers or more at the airport, depending on the seasonal demand. It is the mix of the larger commercial jets with small, private jets on the main runway that is the biggest safety concern, Mr. Rossi said.
If the tower is shut down, pilots at the airport will have to take over the responsibility for ground conditions, he said.
"We have control of the airport's airspace 2,500 feet up," Mr. Rossi said, but planes flying above that do not have to check in with the airport's tower.
The controllers in the 100-foot-high tower communicate by radio with the Johnstown airport 50 miles away, which monitors all planes in the area.
Without the Latrobe-area control tower, pilots using the airport would radio the Johnstown air controllers directly, Mr. Rossi said.
"Pilots in the area would all be on the same radio frequency, and the Johnstown airport personnel would repeat that one of our airplanes would be taking off or landing at Latrobe, to alert other planes in the area," he said.
Mr. Anderson said, "Do we want to keep the Latrobe tower open to help direct traffic on the ground? Sure. But is it essential to the airport operation? Not absolutely.
"I was a pilot for 25 years in the military, and I don't believe I ever talked to the tower in Latrobe when I flew in," he said. "I would come in under Cleveland's control tower, then they talked to the Latrobe tower and they would flash the lights to signal an OK."
In the wake of the threatened shutdown, the Westmoreland airport authority last week approved the purchase of better radio equipment for pilots at a cost of $10,000. The equipment increases the quality of the radio signal to the Johnstown and Cleveland airports.
"Pilots already have the equipment now to use when the tower is closed, but this will boost their signal and automatically dial Johnstown," Mr. Rossi said.
Mr. Rossi said he doesn't believe the planned federal cutbacks to airports will take effect.
"I don't think Congress wants to jeopardize passenger safety. We have 200,000 people a year that use the airport. It's a safe airport, but it is safer with the tower," he said.
"We have planes landing all the time now when the tower is closed, say in the middle of the night," he said.
Mr. Rossi said it costs the FAA $330,000 to $500,000 a year to pay the salaries of six controllers who work in the tower, depending on weather conditions. The employees work for Midwest Traffic Control Services of Kansas, which operates the Latrobe airport tower.
He figures it would cost the authority $33,000 to $46,000 a month to pay the tower controllers' salaries and insurance.
But the authority is trying to see what private and public funds are available if the FAA cuts go into effect. Westmoreland officials have been working closely with Mr. Murphy about the proposed cuts, Mr. Rossi said.
"We're looking for support from all over," he said. "We have groups and individuals that use the airport who have offered to help pay." The authority also has talked to county commissioners about funding. In addition, they are looking for state funds.
Mr. Anderson said, "We'll see what options we have if the tower closes. I want to see a buy-in from the people who use it."
Companies at the airport offer private flying lessons and charter flights.
The tower was built in the early 1970s with private and county money, Mr. Rossi said.
The airport has seen significant increases in passengers using Spirit's commercial flights during the past two years. And the numbers are expected to continue to rise.
"When Spirit adds the Dallas flight, we'll have 250,000 people using the airport in a year," Mr. Rossi said.
Debra Duncan, freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org.