The Leesburg Town Council and the Leesburg Executive Airport are scrambling for solutions after the FAA’s sudden announcement that it will end the airport’s remote tower program on June 14.
Leesburg Executive Airport Director Scott Coffman and a representative of Saab reported the story behind this cancelation and presented next steps to council Monday night. Supporters of the remote tower say that if it is removed, the economic and safety impacts on the airport will be significant.
“[The FAA’s announcement] was a real kick,” Coffman said. “We have seen nothing but growth and increased safety throughout this program.”
In June 2018, Leesburg Executive Airport was the first airport in the nation to begin operation of a remote air traffic control tower. Using 360-dgree cameras, sensors and radar, the tower sends signals to an office about a quarter of a mile away. From there, air traffic controllers oversee 75,000 takeoffs and landings each year.
The remote tower has transformed the airport, Coffman said. In 2012, several near misses and airspace violations made staff realize the airport needed a tower. Since the tower began operation, traffic has increased by 47%, and a thriving pilot education program allows five flight schools to give pilots’ licenses to 500 people each year.
The FAA said in 2021 that the new program was viable, and Congress has funded $30 million toward a national remote air traffic control tower program, with much of it going to Leesburg.
With the pending cancelation, Coffman said, all of these advancements are on the line. If the remote air traffic control tower gets shut down, the airport may have build a brick-and-mortar tower with funds from the FAA, which could take years, or return to a temporary control tower, which wouldn’t provide nearly the same level of visibility.
“[Returning to a temporary control tower] would be like removing the light at Market Street and Battlefield and putting up a yield sign,” Coffman said.
Corporate airlines won’t fly clients into an airport without a control tower, and flight schools would have to send their students farther afield, Coffman said.
“Our airport’s in a very complex bit of airspace,” Coffman said, referencing the airport’s proximity to both Dulles International Airport and the nation’s capital. “For the FAA to cancel Leesburg air traffic service doesn’t make any sense from a safety point of view.”
This cancelation comes as a result of technical and design system requirements established by the FAA in September 2021. Saab, in hopes of duplicating remote towers at airports around the country, had been in the process of finalizing a certification with the FAA.
But the unexpected, more stringent requirements grounded Saab, company representative Matt Massiano said. According to Massiano, the FAA said that the design for the Leesburg airport’s tower would only apply to airports with a single, 5,500-foot runway—but only three airports in the nation meet this standard. Furthermore, new testing requirements and other standards would be too expensive and take too long, Massiano said, and Saab is unsure that the requirements would ever be met.
Due to these reasons, Saab notified the FAA that they wouldn’t continue with the certification process in February, and the FAA dropped their cancelation of the remote tower program a few days later on Feb. 21.
With the clock ticking, Coffman and Saab told council that they’ll continue to work with the FAA. Several stakeholders met with the government agency on Tuesday to ask that the FAA at least postpone the ending of the program.
Saab also advocates for the remote tower to continue operating as-is until a new system, by Saab or another vendor, gets approved—especially since the FAA stated that the system was viable and safe as recently as 2021.
Town Manager Kaj Dentler said that the town is pursuing additional avenues, as well, including speaking with legislators, retaining a lobbyist and considering the filing of an administrative appeal with the FAA.
“There’s a short-term and a long-term strategy that we’re trying to work with,” Dentler said. “Is there a solution here, is there a compromise?... If it becomes clear that we can’t move forward with the project, where do we land?”
Have Randall rename it after an African American and watch the change in attitude.
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