K.I. SAWYER - Management officials at Sawyer International Airport have begun working toward the May closure of the air traffic control tower at the Upper Peninsula's busiest airport.
After almost a week of delay, the Federal Aviation Administration officially notified management officials at Sawyer International Airport Thursday the air traffic control tower there will be shut down May 5.
Last Friday, the FAA published a list of 149 air traffic control towers on its website which are slated to close beginning early next month, including Sawyer's tower, due to federal sequestration budget cuts.
Earlier this week, Sawyer management had no official FAA confirmation of its tower closure and had heard informally through the tower contractor - Midwest Air Traffic Control - about the Sawyer closure date.
The contractors told Sawyer airport manager Duane DuRay they received that date from the FAA in a fax a few days prior.
"I'm not 100 percent sure on how they're planning on phasing this all out," DuRay said. "All I know is come May 5th, our tower is going down. Will it start as a transition where they'll slowly reduce services and implement the closure or are they just going to be full service one day and lights out the next day? I'm not a hundred percent sure on that."
DuRay also couldn't say conclusively what the future holds for five workers at the tower.
"I would have a hard time believing that they would be absorbed into a system when 75 percent of that system is being chopped off at the root," DuRay said. "There may be some transitions throughout the company, but I would venture to say the vast majority of them will become unemployed and will have to either move or just, I don't know if they can retire, call it quits."
Meanwhile, DuRay wanted to assure air travelers flights will continue safely at the Sawyer airport. In fact, American Airlines is continuing its plans to add additional flights in June. Delta Airlines added new flights earlier this month.
"This is affecting jobs. This is affecting people's lives and careers and by no means do I want it to sound like 'This is no big deal, we'll lose the tower, we'll keep going,'" DuRay said. "Yes, Sawyer International Airport will continue to operate. We'll continue to have flights. I don't want any of the traveling public to panic and say it's not safe to fly in there anymore we're going to go someplace else or we're just going to not fly anymore."
Airport and airlines staff will coordinate, working into the transition.
"Short-term we're probably going to have a few hiccups in the system that's going to take a little bit of ironing out with our policies and our procedures, the airline's policies and procedures and just re-educating our recurring customers on flying into an uncontrolled field again," DuRay said. "I sat down with the airlines and we've talked a little bit about this. I'm anticipating that the FAA is going to take an active role in this as well because it should not fall just on the airports' plate that we have to re-educate all of our pilots."
DuRay said the airlines "understand the procedures of operating in and out of an uncontrolled airfield."
"It's just making sure that their staff, their crew and our staff are all on that same page the day the lights go out," DuRay said.
Sawyer director of operations Steve Schenden said U.S. Rep. Dan Benishek, R-Crystal Falls met with staff at the airport for about a half-hour Tuesday. Schenden said Benishek mostly asked questions about how the tower closure will affect the airport's operations.
Schenden said county officials were working on cost estimates and the processes involved in closing the tower.
"Equipment will need to be moved from the tower and operations and emergency manuals updated," Schenden said. "Then there would be costs to change them back if the tower received funding in the future. The airport is just starting preliminary evaluation to determine what would need to be done and what those costs are."
DuRay said he didn't know how much money the government would save by closing the Sawyer tower or how much will need to be spent on maintenance.
"There's the FAA costs and then there's the airport costs, because our tower was a fully-funded tower, but we still maintained the facilities. We paid the utilities. We paid the upkeep of the building and the maintenance. So we had some out-of-pocket expenses that, over time, we'll be able to reallocate into other areas," DuRay said. "But still, we'll have a building that we can't just shut the lights off, turn our backs to it. It still has to be maintained to a certain extent. Otherwise, it's going to become another abandoned eyesore."
DuRay said "unless something drastic happens," the tower closure is expected to be permanent.