Airport Control Tower Comes In Flying High, New Snow Blower Gets Grounded

By Jon A. Brake


Someone needs to check the temperature in Hell. It may have frozen-over Tuesday night. The Manhattan City Commission turned down Free Money for the Manhattan International Airport. The City Staff wanted a $342,340.00 high speed broom for snow removal for the Airport. The FFA was willing to give the City $345,769.00 to purchase the sweeper and a $41,348.00 liquid material spreader.

But the City Commission said "No" by a 3-2 vote. Commissioners Mark Taussig, Brad Everett and Ed Klimek voted no and Bruce Snead and Roger Reitz voted "yes."

This has to be the first time the sacred cow -eh- Airport has been turned down for anything. But, the Commission kissed and made-up by agreeing to build a new Air Traffic Control Tower for $915,848.00. But, the FAA will fully refund the amount after Congress passes a new law giving money for such items.

Does anyone remember that the FAA was going to pay 90% of the $10 million Airport Terminal? It ended up paying 52% and the City had to purchase long-term loans to pay for it?

In the Memo given to the Commission staff talks about Boeing 727 and Boeing 737 airliners coming into the Airport. They also talk about how the Army will use the Airport with their larger airplanes.

What about the 1994 letter the City received from the FAA saying the Airport was not built for large airplanes and if we continued to let them land the FAA would not help pay for the damage?

Here is part of the memo:


The air traffic control tower at Manhattan Regional Airport has been in operation since 1989. It operates seven days a week from 8:00 AM to 6:00 PM. Midwest Air Traffic Control Services, Inc based in Olathe, Kansas has provided the control tower facility, and it serves as the contractor for air traffic control services. Two air traffic controllers are employed in the Manhattan facility. This service is known as a non-Federal Contract Tower in the air traffic control industry, and it has operated without an air traffic control incident during the past 12 years.

The primary functions of the air traffic control tower are to safely separate air traffic within five miles of the airport, control aircraft and vehicles operating on runways and taxiways, facilitate handling of aircraft emergencies for all parties involved, and it provides information on request to pilots within radio range of the control tower. The air traffic controllers in Manhattan also augment the automated surface observation system on the airport to maintain the flow of weather information to aviators and the National Weather Service. The air traffic control tower at Manhattan is not radar equipped. However, the Kansas City Air Route Traffic Control Center routinely "hands-off" aircraft operating under instrument flight rules to the Manhattan facility for final approach and landing.

The presence of the air traffic control tower not only enhances aviation safety, but it has allowed air carrier and corporate aircraft to operate at the Airport unimpeded. Many of these aircraft would not be able to use Manhattan Regional Airport for insurance reasons without the presence of a control tower. Midwest Air Traffic Control controllers work overtime when requested to support "after hours" jet charters.

These charters support Fort Riley and Kansas State University. Since 1998, air traffic at the Airport has increased over 60%, and the fleet mix using the Airport has moved towards higher performance aircraft such as Boeing 727 and Boeing 737 airliners. In fact, at the March 20, 2001 City Commission meeting on this same subject, Dick Wollenberg, Transportation Officer for Fort Riley commented that there is a very strong need for a new control tower at the Airport, that deployments from Fort Riley are seeing an increase, and that Fort Riley is very interested in the control tower. Since 1999, the Airport has supported 50% or more of Fort Riley’s deployments, and new training opportunities exist for Fort Riley with C-17A aircraft that began using the Airport in 2000.

It should also be noted that the runway at Marshall Army Air Field is closed to fixed wing aircraft, and their control tower closed when the Aviation Brigade left Fort Riley. Since that time, the Air Traffic Control Tower has provided necessary Air Traffic Control services to military helicopters using both Manhattan and Marshal Army Air Field. Consequently, the Air Traffic Control Tower is an important asset to the City and Fort Riley.

Another positive factor associated with the Manhattan facility is the existence of controlled airspace around the airport. Because Manhattan has an operational air traffic control tower, the airspace within a five-mile radius of the airport is considered controlled airspace. Controlled airspace enhances safety.

When the air traffic control tower is closed, pilots are required to report their positions relative to the Airport both in the air and on the ground. These reports assist pilots as they maintain visual separation from one another. This kind of activity is considered uncontrolled, because there is no air traffic controller present to act in that capacity. This practice is legal, safe, and effective when the air traffic is relatively light.

On July 3, 2001, the City Commission approved a six-month extension to the services and facility agreement between the City and Midwest Air Traffic Control Services, Inc. The basic contract fee for the year 2001 is currently $109,800.00. The current agreement is scheduled to end on December 31, 2001.

Midwest Air Traffic Control notified the City in October 2000 that their portable control tower facility at Manhattan would need to be replaced in the very near future and the communication equipment would also require replacement soon (see Enclosure 1). This posed a dilemma for the Airport, because a fixed tower facility was listed in the Capital Improvements Program (CIP) Appendix as an unfunded project for 2001. Since receiving the Midwest Air Traffic Control notification, the Airport Advisory Board and City Administration have reviewed possible options for continuing air traffic control services at the Airport in a new facility.

The issue before the City Commission is easier to understand by initially separating the Air Traffic Control facility discussion from the discussion concerning the Air Traffic Control services provided.

Facility. Two types of facilities were discussed with the Airport Advisory Board: another portable control tower or a permanent/fixed control tower facility.

A. Portable Control Tower. Midwest Air Traffic Control does possess a newer portable control tower facility that could replace the existing portable facility. Locating this facility on the Airport so that the controller has an adequate line-of-sight would be difficult because the cab height is less than 20 feet above ground. The controllers in the existing facility cannot see aircraft approaching the Airport from the northeast because of trees on residential property near the Airport that block their view. The newer portable facility is available for lease to the City of Manhattan at a rate of $48,000 per year, and the City would need to bear the cost of site improvements plus purchase its own communication and weather equipment (estimated to cost between $150,000 and $250,000) for installation in the facility. Transportation of the facility, set-up, and the eventual tear down costs would also be City expenses.

B. Fixed Control Tower. A permanent or fixed control tower facility could be built to replace the existing portable facility. The cab height of the control tower should be approximately 45 feet above ground level. The primary components of the facility should include the shaft with a staircase, office space directly below the cab, and the cab itself where air traffic control services are provided. If only one controller is on duty, then a unisex restroom should also be included in the facility. Of course, the facility must meet local building codes and FAA standards. The recently completed Garden City air traffic control tower facility is shown in Enclosure 2.

C. Fixed Control Tower Funding. A firm experienced with air traffic control tower construction and operational requirements should be hired to design this unique facility. This firm should also be responsible for supervising the installation of the communication and weather equipment. Federal funding to construct air traffic control towers is not currently available through the Airport Improvement Program. However, legislation has been proposed in both houses (H.R. 1979 and S. 633) to modify the Airport Improvement Program to include air traffic control tower construction in the Airport Improvement Program as early as 2002. The House version of the legislation currently has 51 co-sponsors including Congressmen Ryun, Tiahrt, and Moran. It should go to the floor for a vote in early September. The Senate version of the legislation came out of the Senate Commerce Committee, and it too should go to the floor for a vote in early September. The proposed House legislation does include a provision for Airport Improvement Program funding to reimburse Air Traffic Control Tower facility construction after January 1, 1996. Prospects are good for passage of this legislation according to the American Association of Airport Executives.

The Airport Advisory Board considered two funding options for building and equipping a control tower facility. The first option would have financed the project using general obligation bonds issued in 2002. The second option would utilize a leaseback arrangement from a builder followed by a buy-out of that lease to purchase the facility using a combination of Airport Improvement Program funding and the City general fund (local share). If Airport Improvement Program funding is not possible, then the purchase could be financed with general obligation bonds that year. The Airport Advisory Board recommended the second option, because it includes the potential use of Airport Improvement Program funding at the time of purchase.

On March 20, 2001, the City Commission directed City Administration to solicit a request for proposals from firms willing to construct an Air Traffic Control Tower facility on Airport property and offer that facility for lease exclusively to the City of Manhattan.

Air Traffic Control Services. Air Traffic Control towers similar to the one in Manhattan are considered Level 1 visual flight rule (VFR) towers, and they are operated independently by airport authorities or through the Federal Contract Tower program.

A. Non-Federal Contract Tower. As stated in the beginning of this memorandum, Manhattan Regional Airport Air Traffic Control services are provided under contract with Midwest Air Traffic Control Services, Inc. The air traffic control tower operates seven days a week from 8:00 AM to 6:00 PM. Two air traffic controllers are employed in the Manhattan facility. This facility is known as a non-Federal Contract Tower in the air traffic control industry, and it has operated in this manner for 12 years. The cost of providing this service to Manhattan beyond 2001 with two air traffic controllers is estimated to be $110,000+ annually for the service only.

B. Federal Contract Tower Program. Since 1982, the FAA has contracted to the private sector air traffic control services at many VFR towers. The FAA Contract Tower Program has received positive reviews from all involved, including FAA, Department of Transportation Inspector General, National Transportation Safety Board, airport management, Congress, and most importantly, the users of the aviation system. A total of over 200 smaller airports in 46 states are currently participating in the program, which enhances aviation safety, improves Air Traffic Control services and provides significant cost efficiencies to the FAA. AIR-21 authorized the continuation of the Federal Contract Air Traffic Control Tower Cost Sharing Program through 2004. Full funding for the program is included in the 2002 DOT Appropriations bills from both houses of Congress.

When an airport applies to enter the program, the FAA calculates the benefit/cost (B/C) ratio for that airport using a complex set of algorithms. If the B/C is 1.0 or greater, then the FAA should enter the airport into the program at a 100% funding level. If the B/C is less than 1.0, then the FAA may enter the airport into the program on a cost-sharing basis. The FAA last updated the Manhattan B/C in early 2000 using their statistical database, and the B/C value then was 0.46. Quadrex Associates, Inc has prepared a technical report to predict the B/C for Manhattan to enter into the program based upon the City’s database. For the first year under the program, the Manhattan B/C is 0.56. The criteria to remain in the program the second year and beyond is less restrictive, and the Manhattan B/C should increase to 0.81.

Kansas airports currently participating in the program include Topeka (both Billard and Forbes), Salina, Hutchinson, Olathe, and Garden City. The Airport Advisory Board recommends that the City of Manhattan apply for entry into the Federal Contract Air Traffic Control Tower Cost Sharing Program, (see Enclosure 2). A copy of the program application/agreement that was signed by the Mayor in March is included as Enclosure 4. The agreement with the FAA requires that the City:

* Provide and maintain an equipped, fixed Air Traffic Control Tower facility,

* Establish a letter of agreement with the regional Air Traffic Control contractor,

* Indemnify the Federal government from the actions of the contractor,

* Acknowledge the requirement for annual funding of the program by Congress,

* Acknowledge the annual recalculation of the Airport’s B/C by FAA.

The Federal Contract Tower Program is a very cost effective way to operate an air traffic control tower. Transitioning to this program from the existing non-Federal situation should save the City a substantial sum of money on the service, and it is conceivable that FAA funding could reach the 100% level within a few years as Airport traffic increases.

The FAA has responded positively to the City’s application/agreement. In their letter received on August 6, 2001 (see Enclosure 5), they state that: "The FAA is prepared to transition MHK (Manhattan) into the cost share program provided all basic requirements are met, with the understanding that early entry into the program can be accomplished before the completion of a permanent Air Traffic Control tower, as long as all assurances are in place." This response followed some intense lobbying with the Federal Contract Tower office, and it included a visit to Manhattan by FAA officials from FAA headquarters on July 10, 2001.