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If Nashua Airport Tower Closes, Air Traffic Controllers May Be Forced To Make Career Change

Budget cuts from Sequestration will soon be felt by air traffic controllers across the country as the Federal Aviation Administration plans to close more than 230 control towers. Nashua’s airport is on that preliminary list and, if it closes for good, many air traffic controllers may need to find work in different fields.

On a recent Monday morning, two workers are manning the Nashua Airport control tower. It’s a cramped, glass hexagon only 48 feet above the ground. Their eyes remain fixed on small propeller aircraft coming and going from the runway.

“The tower’s been in operation almost 25 years…”

Royce Rankin is the Nashua Airport Manager. He says, if the control tower closes, his big concern is safety.

“…and prior to that when it was a non-controlled field, they did have two aircraft that had mid-airs’ here. Two of them coming together, one on top of the other. It wasn’t pretty.”

Rankin says that without a tower, pilots will have to coordinate their movements between themselves on a common frequency. With limited visibility, student fliers and a single runway, that could prove risky.

Brian Beane is the Air Traffic Manager. If Nashua finds itself on the final closure list, he and the rest of his team will be out of the job on April 7th.

“Pretty scary thought, y’know. Been doing this for 23 years. This is pretty much all I know how to do, so…”

New Hampshire Senators Kelly Ayotte and Jeanne Shaheen say they understand his concerns. Senator Ayotte brought it up Tuesday on the senate floor.

“Well, there is a tower in Nashua, New Hampshire, in Boire Field, that was on the list of the FAA, despite the airport’s importance to both the United States and New England, and despite a recent investment of over $24 million by the FAA to upgrade the airport’s runway.”

Senators Ayotte and Shaheen were among 23 senators who had signed onto a proposed amendment for the continuing resolution budget. It would’ve moved $50 million out of the FAA’s research and capital funds to keep the contract towers running. But when the senators showed up to work Tuesday, the amendment vote wasn’t allowed to happen.

“This amendment would ensure that towers like the tower at Boire Field, in Nashua New Hampshire, my home town, continue to operate yet we will not be given a vote on this senate floor despite this strong bipartisan support…”

News of the amendment’s failure hit Nashua Airport hard. Air traffic manager Brian Beane says that even if the FAA were hiring right now, its guidelines require new hires to be under 31 years old, which rules out most contractors and everyone in the Nashua tower.

The other controllers in Nashua are even older, some even over the FAA’s mandatory retirement age of 56. Some controllers have fallback positions as an airplane mechanic, pilot or flight instructor. But others may end up getting unemployment benefits.

Airport Manager Royce Rankin says he believes the FAA is disproportionately targeting contract towers like Nashua for the cuts.

“The FAA budget came in and they said you’re gonna cut 5% out of selected programs. Not all programs got cut. And then  they just come in and arbitrarily say we’re gonna cut 75% of the contract tower program. We can’t live with that.”  

The FAA’s preliminary list of closures includes 75% of the contract towers in the country. And they make up about 80% of the total closures listed.

A November report from the Department of Transportation finds that contract towers cost about $1.5 million less to operate than comparable FAA towers.

Over the years, a lot of Nashua Airport’s traffic came from flight schools. Though, it lost a high-profile client when Daniel Webster College closed its aviation program three years ago. That took away more than a third of its traffic.

At the time, the airport had six other flight schools based there. Now it’s down to five. According to the FAA’s Air Traffic Activity System Database, Nashua’s total number of operations has steadily declined to nearly half of where it was five years ago. From 102,000 in 2008, to 55,000 last year.

For Brian Beane’s part, the road ahead is uncertain.

“I have to find a new job so, I don’t know, still deciding what I’m gonna do.

RL: do you think you’ll have to go back to school?

Yeah, that’s the thought process, yeah. Right now. Try to find a new career.”

The FAA will announce its final list of tower closures on Friday.

See how all New Hampshire airports are being affected by sequestration cuts below.

Manchester Boston Regional: One of 60 towers that may need to cut its midnight to 6am tower shift by April 27. If so, it will need to install automation equipment for navigational aids. This may also complicate overnight snow removal operations. TSA furloughs are also expected but Manchester doesn’t expect that to cause any additional delays in the screening process.

Concord Municipal: Has no control tower. Federal project grants are not tied up by sequestration.

Nashua Municipal: On the preliminary list of contract towers that will potentially close April 7.

Pease International (Portsmouth): Control tower manned by six Air National Guard members and nine FAA-certified civilians. DoD budget cuts may result in 22 furlough days starting April 27. This will include air traffic controllers but Pease says it will not impact operations.

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