Airport Traffic Control Tower to be Operational in September

STATE COLLEGE – The recently completed airport traffic control tower at the University Park Airport will be functional in about a month, according to Airport Director Bryan Rodgers. Once it goes online, the tower will operate from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., seven days a week.

A staff of an air traffic manager and controllers have arrived on-site. “They’ll have a 30-day break-in period to finalize some paperwork and get organized, and then I expect the tower to be operational and controllers actually controlling air traffic around Sept. 1,” said Rodgers.

That timeline coincides with the first Penn State home football game of the season, Sept. 3 vs. Indiana State. “That’s purely coincidence,” Rodgers said.

The controllers will be employees of Midwest Air Traffic Control, contracted by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) under the Federal Contract Tower Program. While building the tower was the responsibility of the airport, the FAA will pay the cost of staffing the tower because a benefit-to-cost ratio prepared by the FAA shows the benefits for having a control tower here outweigh the costs nearly two-to-one.

“When your benefit-cost ratio is 1.0 or greater, the federal government pays for those controllers, so even though the tower is a University facility to maintain, the controllers are paid for 100 percent via the FAA,” Rodgers said. He explained that a number of factors go into the analysis, including the volume of both commercial traffic and general aviation traffic, the wide variety of aircraft that operate at the airport and the terrain surrounding the airport. The University Park Airport handles about 65,000 takeoffs and landings and about 140,000 passenger enplanements each year. Out of the 15 commercial airports in the state, University Park Airport is the sixth busiest in terms of passenger enplanements. Over the past 24 years, passenger levels have increased 179 percent, peaking in 2007 at 144,160.

“This (project) was a major investment that was needed,” state Sen. Jake Corman (R-34) said during the tower dedication ceremony in December 2010. “It’s a good example that if we all work together we can get great things done.”

Corman, along with U.S. Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA), U.S. Rep. Glenn Thompson (R-5) and U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster (R-9), showed their support for the project from the beginning, Rodgers said.

“We would keep them abreast of the status, and from time to time if we weren’t making progress with the FAA, they would step in at appropriate times to make some inquiries on our behalf. They’re well-aware of the benefits this tower brings to the region, and I think they’re probably as happy as we are that we’re to the point where the tower is going to become operational,” said Rodgers.

Although the tower was completed in December 2010, progress was stalled for a time regarding the staffing of the facility. “We had the dedication in December and expected to be operational in January, but because the federal government was operating under continuing resolutions rather than a ratified budget, there was no money available to pay for controllers to operate the tower.” With the resolution of the 2011-12 federal budget, money was made available, enabling the FAA to authorize the operation of the control tower.

The tower will bring much-needed safety enhancements both to the University Park Airport and other airports in the vicinity, Rodgers said. Currently, instrument flight-rated (IFR) air traffic taking off or landing at University Park is controlled by the New York Air Route Traffic Control Center in Long Island, N.Y. Those aircraft operating on visual flight rules (VFR) out of University Park, Bellefonte Airport and Ridge Soaring Gliderport in Julian are not controlled by any tower, but rather self-report their intentions over an aviation frequency used by other aircraft. “It’s kind of a report your intentions, see-and-be-seen type of thing,” Rodgers said.

Once the tower becomes operational, its controllers will be responsible for all air traffic within a 4.5-mile radius of University Park Airport flying up to about 2,500 feet above ground level. “There will be mandatory communications between aircraft wanting to come into that airspace, aircraft that want to leave that airspace and those that just want to operate within that level of airspace. We don’t have that mandatory communication now. Obviously, that is a huge safety enhancement for us, as well as for airports in the vicinity of University Park Airport,” Rodgers said.

The controllers also will regulate ground traffic at the University Park Airport, Rodgers said. “When the tower is in operation, even when the vehicle is operating on the ground, you have to contact the tower to ask for permission to go to certain areas of the airport, which is a real change from how we’ve always operated. We’ve always been able to take an aviation radio with us, listen and advise others of our intentions on the ground, but that’s all going to change when the tower’s in operation. We’re going to have to request permission. It’s a big safety enhancement for us for our operations personnel that do runway snow removal and mow grassy areas adjacent to the runways. It’s yet another layer of safety where we have someone looking out for us.”

Annemarie Mountz, Penn State University

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