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Posted on Tue, Mar 12, 2013 : 5:58 a.m.

Sequestration: Cuts to control tower staff at Ann Arbor, Willow Run airports still uncertain

By Amy Biolchini

Staff at both Ann Arbor Municipal and Willow Run airports are still uncertain as to whether federally funded control tower employees will be affected by $85 billion in automatic federal budget cuts -- known as sequestration -- that are slated to take effect as early as April.


The control tower at the Ann Arbor Municipal Airport is on the FAA's list for closure, should federal budget cuts under sequestration be implemented.

Melanie Maxwell |

Both airports are on the Federal Aviation Administration’s list to be affected by cuts should a $637 million reduction in the FAA’s budget be enacted.

The entire 11-member control tower staff at the Ann Arbor airport in Pittsfield Township is on FAA’s list to be cut, while the Willow Run Airport could be losing nighttime controllers from its tower staff of 16 people.

The efficiency and, in turn, capacity of an airport is increased when there’s someone in the tower controlling traffic, said Scott Wintner, department manager for communications for the Wayne County Airport Authority.

“Having someone in the tower makes the airport run more efficiently than when we rely on aircraft to talk directly to each other,” he said.

Airport Manager Matt Kulhanek said the Ann Arbor control tower manager has not received a communication from the FAA yet that the tower will be closing.

“There’s uncertainty because there’s no hard information out there,” Kulhanek said. “I don’t anticipate it would have a measurable impact on air traffic in Ann Arbor.”

The tower at the airport is staffed seven days a week from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Should the staff be eliminated, the tower will close -- but operations would not cease, Kulhanek said.

“It’s hard to say how it would affect activity levels,” Kulhanek said. “There are busy times of day in the summer when (not having a control tower) could slow activity down.”

The control tower ensures operations at an airport flow smoother because they can provide an “advanced level of coordination” between the activity on the ground and in the air, Kulhanek said.

FAA regulations state "There is no substitute for alertness while in the vicinity of an airport," and advice that when a control tower is unmanned, pilots should communicate via a common radio frequency specific to each airport called the Common Traffic Advisory Frequency (CTAF).

Pilots have been trained on the protocols of using the CTAF system and know which planes have the right-of-way in certain situations, Kulhanek said.

“Pilots monitor and utilize it when they’re in the pattern when they’re getting ready to land and take off,” Kulhanek said. “It’s not unfamiliar to pilots. It’s how they operate at airports that don’t have towers.”

In 2012, the 64,000 takeoffs and landings happened at the Ann Arbor airport, according to figures the FAA control tower staff collects. There were 77,316 takeoffs and landings at the Willow Run Airport in 2012.

The traffic at the Ann Arbor airport mainly consists of small corporate jets and flight school activity, whereas larger cargo planes are a majority of the traffic at the Willow Run Airport in Ypsilanti.

The Willow Run Airport, which is owned and operated by the Wayne County Airport Authority, is preparing to have the hours of their round-the-clock control tower reduced.

The FAA has put the Willow Run Airport on the list of facilities to have the control tower close for a night shift.

“We certainly expect we’ll be losing overnight controllers in the tower at Willow Run Airport,” Wintner said.

The exact specifications of how long the night shift would last and when it would begin have not been communicated, Wintner said.

The earliest changes may come to Willow Run will likely be mid-April, Wintner said.

An airport without a manned control tower isn’t shut down.

“Given the amount of traffic during the overnight hours (at Willow Run), I doubt it would be detrimental,” Wintner said. “It won’t be an issue until, when and if, Willow Run were to become busy (at night).”

The control tower at Willow Run is responsible for directing aircraft during the final approach and descent to the airport, Wintner said. Before planes communicate with the control tower, they’re in contract with Terminal Radar Approach Control operators that work from the FAA’s control facility in the Detroit Metro Airport. Those operators manage the air space and the sequence of planes, Wintner said.

Cargo planes typically fly at night. Should freight cargo activity increase at the Willow Run Airport, there would likely be a need for nighttime control tower staff, Wintner said - at which point in time the airport could ask the FAA for additional staff. Wintner said the elimination of a 24-hour control tower at Willow Run could be detrimental to the region’s plans to expand economic activity using the airport as an asset. “It’s a perception thing that could hinder our development efforts,” Wintner said.

Amy Biolchini covers Washtenaw County, health and environmental issues for Reach her at (734) 623-2552, or on Twitter.



Wed, Mar 13, 2013 : 8:13 p.m.

And if there was a mid-air, people would be screaming at their representative to re-open the tower.


Wed, Mar 13, 2013 : 12:03 a.m.

People RELAX... With or without the tower, life will continue, the sun will rise the day after the tower is gone and will most likely set in the west. Lets get some perspective: I am willing to bet 90% of AA residents have no clue they even own an airport. Do you really think they care about tower operations ? Don. Although you are probably trying to find a compelling reason for the airport to exist and use in a "Mercy Flight" the same way the airport used "safety" to persuade the council a runway extension is needed (NOT !) ... Rest assured most Uof M fixed wing flights DO NOT operate out of ARB. Helos by definition, DO NOT need runway and most aircraft DO NOT even need tower to operate. Reality check : ARB ain't DTW... Amy. The majority of the 64000 ops are touch and goes. MEANINGLESS to the economy. Ya, the student may buy a hamburger, AvFuel sells some Avgas, but that is about the extant of it. One Delta 747 arriving in DTW fr Asia , while only one "operation", can probably equal about half of ARB's annual economic activity in revenue, cargo, passenger activity etc.. So don't fall for the airport's PR tricks. Last...if the tower is no more...look at the bright side: That "blind spot" behind the hangar, the tower can't "see" and used as an EXCUSE for expansion, well...will no longer be a "blind spot" will it ? Also, while I am not taking political sides in the sequestration. Folks 2 million of our tax Dollars to operate this tower ? Really ?! Maybe there is a positive side to forced cuts.

Amy Biolchini

Tue, Mar 12, 2013 : 6:24 p.m.

As an analogy, Matt Kulhanek described a control tower at an airport as a stoplight, and the way pilots operate without a control tower as a stop sign.

Fred Pettit

Tue, Mar 12, 2013 : 6:27 p.m.

That works until someone runs the stop sign!


Tue, Mar 12, 2013 : 3:23 p.m.

This article is very well-researched and well-written. Thank you for the quality reporting!

Are you serious?

Tue, Mar 12, 2013 : 3:22 p.m.

I will not comment on the "sequester is not scary enough" attitudes, but can assure non-pilots that the public need not be worried about control towers being closed. The simple fact of the matter is that the vast majority of airport operations have taken place and will always take place at airports that have no control towers. As someone with over 10,000 hours in all kinds of aircraft from trainers to corporate jets, I have flown into and out of every type of airport in existence. Pilots are taught the rules for safe operation and for decades have shown that they can operate safely without any outside help. I have flown corporate hundreds of times to airports with no control towers. Pilots are very careful and operate safely in this type of environment. They all realize that inattention can be fatal. Non pilots have probably all encountered situations where traffic lights are out and there are only stop signs being used. When that happens everyone is more careful and relies on themselves to drive safely. Same thing happens at airports where towers are not operating. As far as "dangerous" conditions during football weekends that is a sham issue. It is not unusual for the FAA to temporarily set up a control tower at such events. AT ARB that would basically be turn on the lights and radios and operate for those days. No big deal.


Tue, Mar 12, 2013 : 8:12 p.m.

Right on, right on. I remember when I got my pilots license a long time ago A2 airport only had Unicom service, and without incident. And my experience is similar to yours. Most of the airports I fly into have no control tower but as an experienced pilot you are disciplined to follow safe practices.


Tue, Mar 12, 2013 : 2:08 p.m.

Close the airport!

Amy Biolchini

Tue, Mar 12, 2013 : 1:42 p.m.

A point I found interesting was that the Ann Arbor airport saw 64,000 operations/year and has 11 employees, whereas the Willow Run Airport had 77,316 operations/year and 16 employees.


Tue, Mar 12, 2013 : 5:08 p.m.

The 64,000 operations for ARB is tower-counted ops only, as there is no way to verify the count between 8pm and 8am.


Tue, Mar 12, 2013 : 5:05 p.m.

YIP has more employees (and a/c operations) because they are a 24 hr facility, vs. 12 hr for ARB.

Amy Biolchini

Tue, Mar 12, 2013 : 4:59 p.m.

Great point to make about the flight schools at the ARB that likely make up many of those operations.

Basic Bob

Tue, Mar 12, 2013 : 4:19 p.m.

@a2doc, I am very happy they are practicing at ARB. That's a good reason to keep the runway open, but this kind of activity does not justify a control tower.


Tue, Mar 12, 2013 : 3:52 p.m.

Hi Amy A better comparison statistic would be to compare the number of flights that leave the 5 mile ring around the airport. I have a feeling most of the "flight activity" at ARB are the same 2 little planes taking off and landing. Take off, fly around, land, repeat. This activity was used by the airport to lobby the FAA for expansion. I'm not certain it compares with the comercial freight activity at Willow Run.


Tue, Mar 12, 2013 : 2:19 p.m.

There is a lot of training that takes place at ARB, so a student and instructor can be doing "touch and go"s to practice landings, each of which is two operations, racking up ~10 operations per hour. Also I wonder if the 64,000 number includes an estimate of operations while the tower is closed from 8pm to 8am and there aren't any controllers to keep a tally.

David Cahill

Tue, Mar 12, 2013 : 1:29 p.m.

So it seems the AA tower isn't very important after all. Let's hope it's shut down.

Basic Bob

Tue, Mar 12, 2013 : 2:50 p.m.

Ask your council person to close it.


Tue, Mar 12, 2013 : 12:35 p.m.

Thank God they cut out White House Tours!


Wed, Mar 13, 2013 : 3:33 a.m.

Why, is the $300,000 monthly cost too trivial for you? What costs are too small and should be ignored? Don't cut anything under $1 million a month? $1 Billion a month?


Tue, Mar 12, 2013 : 12:18 p.m.

Is anyone really surprised that the sky is falling tactic was just that, a tactic? Anyone that believed everything they said would be cut, would actually be cut is, naive, foolish, gullible.


Tue, Mar 12, 2013 : 11:10 a.m.

According to an email I received from Kulhanek, he expects ARB tower to stay open after April. He says that the FAA is focusing on closing contracted towers first and not FAA operated ones such as ARB. Still there is no certainty that it will stay open indefinitely. They are still waiting to sort everything out. Jackson's tower is one of the contracted facilities facing closure however that tower has been on the topic of discussion for a long while now with the decline of Jackson Community College's aviation program resulting in less operations per day. I hope that ARB's tower stays in operation. I do see a lot of times when traffic volumes spike especially during football Saturdays. During those instances, not having a controller will be a highly dangerous period of time. Throw in 5 helicopters and three banner planes into the mix with your arriving aircraft, nobody giving traffic advisories or maintaining the pattern and approach, we have a recipe for an incident.

Amy Biolchini

Tue, Mar 12, 2013 : 1:37 p.m.

PWJT8D, Kulhanek mentioned the same thing to me regarding FAA possibly placing a priority on closing contracted-staff towers. As you stated, the employees at the control tower in Ann Arbor are directly employed by the FAA. The same is true for the tower employees at the Willow Run Airport. It will be interesting to see if that statement rings true.


Tue, Mar 12, 2013 : 10:11 a.m.

So we are day to day on a cut that never needed to happen, since the FAA has money that they were allowed to roll over from last year. Of course they will have to close the tower, otherwise the sequester is not scary enough. The major impact in my mind is for the UofM's Helicopters that fly mercy flights.


Tue, Mar 12, 2013 : 2:48 p.m.

You don't understand how the political machine works..............they have identified cuts that will be very public so you will pay more in taxes or allow them to print more money. It's taht simple. They know you won't care if 3000 nameless, faceless bureaucrats from some obscure government department are let go, so they're going to make sure that people feel these cuts. Why do you think the first thing local governments say they are going to cut is police and fire. They know that if the mayors secretary is let go you won't care...............wake up sheeple


Tue, Mar 12, 2013 : 10:33 a.m.

Hey Don, Don't worry about the mercy flights; the helicopters are serviced at ARB but actually "fly out of" the hospital. There are helipads all over the place.