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Was Hernando's control tower needed? Maybe not, but please don't shut it down

The Federal Aviation Administration spends $500,000 a year to operate the air control tower at the Brooksville-Tampa Bay Regional Airport in Brooksville.

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times (2012)

The Federal Aviation Administration spends $500,000 a year to operate the air control tower at the Brooksville-Tampa Bay Regional Airport in Brooksville.

The numbers, to put it mildly, don't look good.

Check them out and you have to wonder how the Federal Aviation Administration decides which airports really need control towers.

You have to wonder whether there's a certain amount of fudging involved — and whether Brooksville-Tampa Bay Regional Airport was perfectly safe without a control tower.

Those were the claims of the tower naysayers, by the way. So if you wonder those things, you also have to wonder whether they were right all along.

Specifically, the airport counted about 42,000 "operations" between mid October, when the tower opened, and the end of August, nearly 11 months later. That's less than half the 90,000 predicted for the first year the tower would be up and running.

If you see that current tally and think it still seems like quite a few takeoffs and landings, well, you can't even assume that. Making radio contact with a fuel truck crossing a runway counts as an "operation," for example. A touch-and-go training exercise — when pilots descend just far enough to tap their airplanes' wheels on the tarmac — counts for two.

It can be pretty slow out at the airport. There's no doubt the critics are right about that.

But does this mean they're also right when they say the tower should never have been built and that the $500,000 the FAA spends per year to operate it is a sorry waste of federal money?

I'm not sure it necessarily does mean that.

For one thing, the FAA's criteria for approving towers and funding their operation is complicated and includes a lot of other factors besides volume of traffic.

And now that the tower is there, the traffic counts probably won't stay low for long.

Take the newly arrived Corporate Jet Solutions, a company that repairs planes — planes that arrive and depart and, in between, require test flights to see how the repairs are working. That will add up to quite a few new "operations."

The owners of the company are also due to open a flight school, which will bring quite a few more. Two other planned flight schools will bring still more operations.

At least one of the schools wouldn't be opening if the tower hadn't been built, which makes sense. If you want to teach pilots, you probably want to teach them how to deal with air traffic controllers.

Notice, then, that we're talking about more than just traffic. We're talking about students coming to Hernando to spend money. We're talking about new jobs.

Pure and simple — if the airport is ever to become a center for aviation business, it needs this tower.

So does that mean the critics are really wrong, that the events at the airport prove this tower was justified?

At the risk of sounding wishy-washy, I don't think it means that, either.

Remember, it's not good policy to build public facilities on the bet that they will be fully used in the future and that, in the meantime, they'll boost somebody's local economy. We shouldn't do it for roads; we shouldn't do it for towers.

But the tower is already an asset. And if the FAA shuts it down because of the budget mess in Washington or for any other reason, it would be a serious blow.

About that, I don't wonder at all.

Was Hernando's control tower needed? Maybe not, but please don't shut it down 09/24/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 24, 2013 4:37pm]
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