The North Perry Airport control tower will remain open after all, at least until Sept. 30.
Calling it an emergency action, the Broward County Commission on Tuesday voted to spend $43,000 per month to ensure air traffic controllers continue guiding planes and helicopters in and out of the busy general aviation airport in Pembroke Pines. The money is to come out of the airport’s operating fund, not tax dollars.
“I don't want to compromise safety, even though apparently the feds don't mind,” said Commissioner Stacy Ritter.
The Boca Raton Airport Authority will hold an emergency meeting at 10 a.m. Wednesday at Boca City Hall to consider ways to keep open that airport’s tower, which is scheduled to close on May 5.
Boca airport spokeswoman Kim Whalen said city officials already have appealed to local congressmen, Gov. Rick Scott and the Federal Aviation Administration to retain the tower. The airport handles a mix of small slow planes and fast corporate jets.
“There’s a huge economic impact, but we’re letting them know it’s a safety issue more than anything,” she said.
North Perry’s tower had been scheduled to close at midnight on Saturday as part of the federal sequestration budget cuts. It was one of 149 general aviation airports nationwide slated to become “uncontrolled” airfields.
The county’s $43,000 monthly payment will allow the North Perry tower to remain open nine hours per day during peak times, down from the current 14 hours. The county also will pay a one-time $5,000 fee for insurance.
Commissioners will set up a task force to explore ways to keep the tower open beyond Sept. 30, the end of the county’s fiscal year. Those might include generating money by charging landing fees to transient pilots and user fees to airport tenants.
The Federal Aviation Administration pays a private company, Robinson Aviation, to operate the tower, but will cease to do so under sequestration.
The Broward County Aviation Department is asking the FAA to continue funding the tower through April 21, which would allow it to prepare for taking over all financial responsibilities.
Broward Commission Mayor Kristin Jacobs said ideally the state should provide the money, much as the Texas Department of Transportation is funding some towers in that state.
However, she said she believes that is unlikely and fears the county might be saddled with the tower’s operating costs indefinitely.
“I find this a very slippery slope,” she said.
U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston, commended the Broward County Commission’s action but noted it’s “a short-term solution to a much larger problem – the impact of sequestration on safety.”
“North Perry Airport has circumstances that are unique to smaller, private airports, and I plan to work with my colleagues in Washington, D.C., to effectively make that case to the Federal Aviation Administration,” she said.
Without a tower, North Perry would be more likely to see an accident, aviation officials said. It is expected to handle more than 150,000 takeoffs and landings this year -- one of the busiest general aviation airports in the state.
Kent George, director of the Broward County Aviation Department, said North Perry is wedged between the Miami and Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood international airports in an area that bustles with air traffic.
“Air traffic control is a primary part of safety,” he said.
If the tower had been shut down, airport officials were prepared to close two of North Perry's crisscrossing runways to reduce chances of a conflict.
Ron Brinson, the airport's tower chief, said North Perry has four flight schools, which account for about 65 percent of the airport's traffic. He said student pilots frequently need additional help being guided in and out.
“We actually help them learn how to speak [over the radio],” he said.
Tower controllers otherwise are the “first line of defense” to ensure small planes, corporate turboprops, helicopters and banner towers remain separated, Brinson said.
“We're eyes in the skies,” he said.
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