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Airport tower may get partial service rather than closure

by Sally J. Taylor

City officials are waiting expectantly for confirmation that the FAA plans to pay for weather observers at the Lake Tahoe Airport tower, which could at least guarantee it stays open.

While not as good as continued air traffic control funding, “a weather observation tower keeps everything active,” said City Councilman Tom Davis.

It also presents the opportunity for the city to piggyback air traffic control by staffing with people qualified for both services.

The Lake Tahoe Airport tower has been targeted by the FAA to close March 1 due to funding cuts. Federal representatives from Nevada and California as well as local officials have been lobbying to keep the tower open, even as the city has stepped up its campaign to bring commercial service back to the airport.

With about 40 communities clamoring to keep their airport towers open, it’s “very slim and very unlikely” that the FAA would spare the Tahoe airport, said Airport Management Assistant Janis Brand.

The FAA recognizes the Lake Tahoe Airport has special problems, Brand said, but to make a special case for the airport would create flack from officials elsewhere who are also facing tower closures.

Referring to FAA officials, Brand said, “They want to (make an exception) but they don’t have our exception written into their rules.”

Maintaining a weather observation tower could be a tolerable compensation prize.

City officials heard indirectly that the FAA could be considering a weather observation tower when a Los Angeles weather observer contractor on Monday called for more information about the airport.

“We have not been notified officially or unofficially yet,” Davis said.

A weather observation tower would cost the FAA about $108,000 per year, Brand determined from talking to the contractor. Current operating costs are $185,000.

By reducing staffing levels and adding an estimated $20,000 per year, the city could add controller services to weather observation.

Currently, Barton Air Traffic Control International has the contract for tower operations and could serve as contractor for the weather observation tower, Brand said.

The FAA is primarily looking at the benefit/cost ratio, said Brand. Without regular commercial air service, the airport does not provide enough benefits to justify the cost of keeping the tower open.

If the FAA closes the tower, the facility and property would be signed over to local entities, Brand said.

Should commercial traffic come back to the airport, a possibility that’s looking more likely, possibly even by June, the transfer would make reopening the tower more complicated.

Keeping the FAA’s involvement would help the airport regain full service at the tower and be more attractive to airline companies than no tower services.

With a solid commitment to commercial service, “we’d go back and knock on doors (to restart air traffic control service),” Brand said.

Tahoe Daily Tribune E-mail: tribune@tahoe.com

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