Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Glacier Park International Airport (KGPI), Kalispell, Montana: Lawsuit Filed to Stop Tower Closure

In letter to FAA, airport director raises safety concerns

The Flathead Municipal Airport Authority, owner and operator of Glacier Park International Airport, announced Wednesday that it filed a lawsuit against the Federal Aviation Administration in an attempt to stop the closure of its air traffic control tower in May.

Air traffic controllers and GPI’s airport manager are also raising concerns about safety following the planned closure. In a letter written by airport director Cindi Martin and obtained by the Beacon, she states that closing the tower would “unacceptably compromise safety at GPI.”

On March 22, the FAA announced that GPI’s control tower would be one of 149 across the country to close this spring 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 the March 12 letter to FAA administrator Michael Huerta, Martin wrote 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.

On March 29, the airport authority filed a lawsuit against the FAA in the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco in hopes of reversing the decision to close GPI’s tower. In a press release, Martin said the FAA did not consider any local site-specific operational issues in its decision to close the tower. She added that having the control tower adds an additional layer of safety at the airport.

“Given the amount of commercial and private aircraft traffic in the nation’s skies, we are unwilling to accept any backtracking on safety,” Martin said.

The lawsuit is one of a series of similar suits that have been filed by airports around the country trying to stop the closures. The press release also says GPI has requested that the FAA delay the closure until the court has made a ruling. 

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