ALBANY, Ga. -- Playing the role of devil's advocate, former Albany mayor and current Albany-Dougherty County Aviation Commissioner Dr. Willie Adams questioned the need for a $500,000 infusion from the city of Albany to maintain an air traffic control tower at the Southwest Georgia Regional Airport on Monday evening.
Noting that he's been contacted by a number of citizens, many of them pilots, who questioned the need for a control tower, Adams told the commission at its monthly meeting, "If we can truly get this done safely for less than a half-million dollars, we need to do it without going to the city for that money."
After listening to airport officials and board members talk about the needs for the tower, not the least of which was the possible loss of Delta and UPS distribution flights, Adams said, "All this talk has managed to really confuse me. But I think to invoke the fear of losing UPS is not fair until we have more information. I need to be clear about this before I vote."
The commission was discussing whether to recommend that the Albany City Commission allocate some $500,000 to maintain and operate the air traffic control tower at the airport -- one of 149 targeted by the Federal Aviation Administration for closure as part of a government-imposed sequester -- for the next fiscal year. The FAA has announced that the towers will remain open at least through June 15.
"The tower is an important part of the airport, and I'm sure Valdosta would be happy to see us close down," Commission Chairman Dr. Bill Mayher said, referencing the nearby airport that is being operated by that city. "But one of the big problems passengers here will face is delays because planes can land here only one at a time and can leave only after they've secured a departure slot from Atlanta.
"If passengers end up having to wait here on the tarmac for an hour or two hours because their plane can't get an earlier departure slot, they're going to drive to Tallahassee or Atlanta the next time. And, if we lose the tower equipment (owned and maintained by the FAA), we'll never see it again."
Board member Keith Fletcher said the safety issue was his primary concern.
"If we're an uncontrolled airport and we flip a plane on that runway, a half-million dollars is going to be a drop in the bucket," Fletcher said.
Alan Mathis, whose Eagles of America company maintains fixed-base operations at the airport, made an impassioned plea for keeping the tower.
"If you want to keep your airport at its current level or potentially better, you need a tower," Mathis said. "With all due respect to the non-aviation members of the government, I'm a pilot and I've seen what can happen at uncontrolled airports.
"My company works at the Moultrie airport, too, and there are only a very few days when traffic there is as heavy as yours here. On those days, it's chaos. If you don't keep this tower here, in 10 years that's where you'll be."
Dwayne Adams with CI2 (squared) Aviation offered an analogy for the commission, which voted 5-0, with Willie Adams abstaining, to recommend the city fund the tower operations for a year, to consider.
"You can operate an airport without a tower, that's true," Dwayne Adams said. "And, yes, I'm sure you are hearing from pilots who tell you the tower is not needed. But a lot of those guys are the guys you have to be careful of. It's like when you register 180 on the dash of your vehicle, you want to go 180.
"These guys don't want to be regulated. And that's dangerous."
Aviation Commissioner Bob Langstaff, who is also a city commissioner, said he favors funding the airport tower.
"I'll recommend that the City Commission fund the airport because one thing I'm pretty sure of is that if we don't man the tower, one of the cities in our area that has been mentioned is coming after UPS," Langstaff said. "As far as the funding goes, I also remember when the federal government stopped funding our gang task force, and gang activity quietly escalated to the point that we had no choice but to fund one."
Willie Adams asked City Manager James Taylor if the city had the funding to maintain and run tower operations, and Taylor said yes.
"Then if the airport needs a half-million dollars and the city has a half-million dollars, I withdraw my comments. ... It's easy," the former mayor said.
But Taylor said the issue is not that simple.
"I'm one of those people who, from my perspective, I'd rather have the tower and not need it than to need it and not have it," the city manager said. "But here's the issue: I don't know if you've said enough here to convince the City Commission that the tower is needed.
"Remember, they're hearing from people in the community who are telling them it's not needed. The kind of things I'm hearing here tonight, the commissioners need to hear."
Also at the meeting, the commission decided not to make the airport facilities a completely smoke-free campus, but instead voted to provide a designated outdoors area adjacent to the new terminal for smokers.
Commission member Dr. Frank Middleton had asked that no smoking be allowed on the airport premises, but the desire to remain customer-friendly won out.
"My wife is president of the Cancer Society, so it's clear where I stand on smoking, but I don't think it's a big to-do to designate one smoking area," Fletcher said.
Added Mayher: "I don't like it, but it's reasonable."
The commission also voted to deny a request for a construction change order of "not more than $25,000" to provide a better covered temporary walkway for passengers over the next two months while the airport's new terminal is completed. Middleton opposed the funding, saying it was cost-prohibitive.
"We're talking about 56 days in which it might not rain more than four days," board member Sanford Hillsman said. "Then you're talking about a $25,000 cost for four days. I agree with Dr. Middleton; I think people are reasonable and understand that there are some inconveniences during construction."