A US Airways Express passenger jet lifts into the air past Yeager Airport's control tower on Wednesday. The Federal Aviation Administration said this week that Yeager's midnight to 5 a.m. shift for air traffic controllers will be eliminated if Congress fails to reach a budget compromise by Friday's sequestration deadline.
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CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- If Congress fails to work out a budget compromise by Friday's sequestration deadline, commercial airline passengers at Charleston's Yeager Airport are not expected to encounter major travel changes -- but life could become more difficult for other airport users.
Current sequestration plans call for the Federal Aviation Administration to continue staffing Yeager's air traffic control tower between 5 a.m. and midnight, when all scheduled commercial flights take place, but discontinue use of the two-person midnight to 5 a.m. controller crew.
However, Yeager Director Rick Atkinson told airport board members Wednesday that members of the West Virginia's congressional delegation have told him the overnight shift curtailment won't take effect until April 7, in order to meet contract obligations to the air traffic controllers' union.
Some delays in passenger screening could take place because of planned mandatory seven-day unpaid furloughs for Transportation Security Administration personnel if Congress fails to meet its budget deadline.
"There could be times when only one screening line is running instead of two," Atkinson said. "While it might take 10 minutes more, at times, to go through screening here, it could be quite a bit longer at some of the larger airports."
Late night general aviation traffic at Yeager will be possible without the overnight shift of controllers, but not without certain improvements, such as making it possible for pilots to activate the airport's runway lights system by remote control. The installation of Unicom radio communications gear also would be needed, to allow Yeager's overnight crew to monitor the after-hours approaches, departures and arrivals of private pilots.
"We have people working on the field at night who are now able to communicate with the control tower to make sure it's safe to do things, like clear snow or inspect the runways," Atkinson said. To continue doing such tasks at night without controllers, it will be necessary to buy and install the Unicom system, and train personnel on how to use it.
"That could take 30 to 45 days," Atkinson said. "Until that happens, we would have to close the airport [to overnight traffic]."
Among airport users that could be adversely affected by curtailed tower hours are post-midnight HealthNet medical helicopter flights to hospital helipads in Charleston and two nighttime LabCorp flights that bring regional blood samples to a facility in Charleston for analysis.
Late-night operations also could be affected for private pilots, including the owners of 92 private aircraft based at Yeager, and slightly more than 100 based at South Charleston's Mallory Airport, who now use air traffic controllers based at Yeager.
"It's not New York," Atkinson said, "but this is a fairly complicated air space."
In other business at Wednesday's airport board meeting, members gave preliminary approval to plans by Executive Air, the operator of Yeager's general aviation terminal, to obtain a final design plan for a new eight-space T-hangar, to be built on a paved area now used as tie-down space for private aircraft.
J. Michael Schweder, president of AT&T's Mid-Atlantic region, presented a check for $3,000 to help cover the operating costs for Yeager's lounge area for military personnel.
On Saturday, Spirit Airlines will resume its seasonal nonstop service to Myrtle Beach and Delta will resume its twice-daily nonstop service to Detroit.
On Sunday, Delta will inaugurate its mainline service to Atlanta with full-size, 126-passenger Airbus A-319 aircraft.
Reach Rick Steelhammer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5169.