Nicole prompted closure of Tampa airport control tower Wednesday night

Tampa’s congresswoman has long called for the “deteriorating” 50-year-old air traffic control facility to be replaced.
The air traffic control tower seen at Tampa International Airport on Friday, September 10, 2021.
The air traffic control tower seen at Tampa International Airport on Friday, September 10, 2021. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Nov. 10, 2022|Updated Nov. 11, 2022

TAMPA — As Nicole edged toward a landfall with Florida’s east coast Wednesday night and strengthened into a hurricane, planes continued to arrive and depart largely without disruption at Tampa International Airport.

But their movements were not being coordinated from the airport’s own air traffic control tower. Instead, a facility 200 miles away took the reins.

The Federal Aviation Administration closed Tampa’s tower around 8:40 p.m. Wednesday, the agency told the Tampa Bay Times, due to Hurricane Nicole, which was downgraded to a tropical storm Thursday morning as it passed over east-central Florida.

The tower reopened at 9 a.m. Thursday, the agency said in a statement.

Related: Nicole leaving some lingering effects in Tampa Bay area on Friday

During the closure, the Miami Air Route Traffic Control Center assumed the Tampa tower’s airspace, per FAA standard protocols.

During this window, Tampa International remained open and operational. “It was up to the airlines whether they wanted to keep or adjust their schedules, as this procedure can slow down or limit operations, which we expected to be limited due to the storm anyway,” airport spokesperson Emily Nipps said.

The FFA also closed the towers at Orlando International, Orlando Sanford International, Orlando Executive, Daytona Beach International and the Central Florida Terminal Radar Approach Control due to Hurricane Nicole.

Tampa International is one of what the Federal Aviation Administration calls its “Core 30″ airports, generally defined as America’s busiest. The Tampa tower is the second-oldest on the list, behind a facility in Baltimore, and has long been a topic of consternation among air traffic controllers.

The FAA-controlled facility is “in awful shape,” Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, told The Times last year. “I remember, as a little girl, the big new Tampa airport, and it has really stood the test of time — except for this tower.”

The FFA did not respond to specific questions about whether the Tampa tower’s age or current condition factored into the decision to close it last night.

Castor has called for a new tower before. President Joe Biden’s trillion-dollar infrastructure bill (bipartisan, though all of Florida’s Republican representation voted against it) earmarked $5 billion to repair and replace air traffic control facilities. To help stake Tampa’s claim, Castor sent a letter to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and Federal Aviation Administration head Steve Dickson outlining complaints about the tower, including cracked windows, old and broken water pipes near electrical wiring, and plumbing and sewage issues resulting in “odors so pungent they have resulted in controllers taking sick leave.”

Related: Tampa airport’s ‘deteriorating’ control tower must be replaced, Castor says

The Federal Aviation Administration has long considered replacing Tampa’s tower, which also houses radar and approach control services for airports from Sarasota to St. Petersburg to Brooksville to Lakeland, as well as MacDill Air Force Base. In 2010, an engineering firm hired by the agency found that the tower was “degraded” and “well past its useful life,” The Times previously reported.

An airport’s control tower is its main hub, a place where internal and external partners work together to develop all aspects of airport operations comprehensively. In aviation lingo, “Air Traffic Control Zero” is declared in response to an event when it is determined the controlling facility is unable to safely provide air traffic services or traffic flow management.

Almost a fifth of flights scheduled to arrive or depart Tampa International Wednesday were canceled, according to Nipps. Delays are impacting about 1 in 4 flights, “though we are seeing things return to a more normal pace as the day goes on,” she added.

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