Six-month reprieve for Tahoe air traffic control |

Six-month reprieve for Tahoe air traffic control

Michael Schneider

A faulty weather-reading system and a slow-moving federal bureaucracy have given the Lake Tahoe Airport’s air traffic control tower a six-month reprieve.

Because the Federal Aviation Administration has deemed the airport does not a have enough air traffic to warrant a federally funded control tower, the FAA decided to cut funding effective at the end of February.

The plan called for the installation of an Automated Surface Observation System, which would read weather conditions at Tahoe and relay them to air traffic controllers at another airport with a tower – possibly Oakland International Airport.

However, the FAA has had problems with the new system. A moratorium has been placed on its implementation, according to the office of Rep. John Doolittle. FAA representatives could not confirm the moratorium, but city officials said the FAA will not abandon man-operated weather observations at Tahoe until a functional alternative is in place.

That means the air control tower will be manned for at least another six months.

Another glitch in the FAA’s decision to stop funding the tower was congressional legislation that freed up $12 million for a cost-sharing program for airports, such as the Lake Tahoe Airport, which do not meet the FAA minimum cost-benefit requirement.

Although the legislation has passed Congress, the FAA is yet to write the provisions that explain how to distribute the funds to the airports, according to Doolittle’s office.

Representatives from Doolittle’s office said the conditions should be in place before September.

The FAA could not confirm any such bill had passed Congress.

The cost-sharing legislation would allow the airport access to a portion of the previous tower funding, based on how high the airport scores in the FAA’s cost-benefit analysis. For example, if the airport scored a 0.5 in the cost-benefit analysis, it may get 50 percent of tower costs funded.

“This is good news in the sense that it leaves options open for a permanent solution,” said Richard Robinson, district director for Doolittle’s office. Representatives from Doolittle’s and Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s, D-Calif., office had a teleconference with FAA officials and city representatives Thursday morning.

Doolittle, along with Feinstein, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., Sen. Richard Bryan, D-Nev., and Rep. Jim Gibbons, R-Nev., lobbied the FAA and Department of Transportation last year when the FAA announced plans to cut tower funding in March 1998.

Their efforts resulted in a one-year extension of the tower funding, although at a reduced level.

The city was able to contribute about $25,000 to the FAA’s weather observations commitment of $95,000 to fund air traffic controllers though this month, when the plan called for funding to cease. The hours of tower operation were reduced because of the funding decrease – about $60,000 less than the previous year.

Janis Brand, assistant airport director, said she was not pleased with the FAA’s decision. Brand said she didn’t like that there was a commitment to a specific date – Sept. 30, 1999 – and that, should the automated weather system’s moratorium be lifted before Sept. 30, then tower funding would cease.

Also as part of the agreement, the FAA will rebid the private tower contract currently held by Barton Air Traffic Control. Brand said these new developments could mean the city would have to take over maintenance costs associated with air traffic control equipment, such as radios.

City officials are currently working on methods to bring the cost-benefit numbers up, including trying to bring a commercial airline to the Lake Tahoe Airport. The efforts have been unsuccessful so far, although city officials claim they are closer now than they were a year ago.

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