For the first time in decades, pilots will take off and land without the help of an air traffic controller. As of June 30, the Northeast Wyoming Regional Airport (NWRA), formerly Gillette Campbell County Airport (GCC and still the FAA designator), suspended air traffic control tower operations.
In a memorandum sent to airport tenants and local pilots dated March 25, NWRA Executive Director Jay Lundell said the Airport Board worked diligently and explored numerous options to keep the control tower properly staffed, but in the end, found it unaffordable to maintain.
In an interview Friday, Lundell said the decision to cease manning the tower was due to financial restrictions and budget shortfalls.
Prior to the shutdown, the airport had employed three full-time controllers, which was costly.
“We see approximately 20,000 flight operations per year here,” he said. “Common wisdom is that, financially, any labor cost over about $2 per flight operation is excessive. Our cost per operation was closer to $28 per operation.”
Recruitment of qualified controllers was another difficulty, Lundell added.
“The FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) hires a lot of controllers. It’s hard to be competitive,” he said.
Eliminating the three controller positions will allow the airport to both save money and add three more employees in other areas of operation. Lundell didn’t have a figure off the top of his head as to how much money the airport will save, only that the “cost savings are substantial.”
And though the elimination of air traffic controllers may sound disconcerting, Lundell was quick to point out that the absence of manned towers does not affect safety. If anything, it was more notable that they had a control tower in the first place, he said, noting that other small regional airports like Sheridan and Laramie have always operated without them. This tower, he said, wasn’t built until the early 1980s.
“With modern technology, aircraft can see each other,” he said. “We were one of the few airports our size to have manned towers.”
Pilots, he further explained, use GPS and UNICOM radio frequencies to communicate with each other in the area of the airport and coordinate take-offs and landings.
Lundell added that with the relatively low-flight volume here, pilots won’t notice much difference.
Senator Michael Von Flatern, who is also a commercial pilot who uses NWRA regularly, said Monday the lack of a tower is not really a concern.
“As of January, every aircraft in the country – with the exception of some agriculture flights – is required to have a new technology installed called Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B),” Von Flatern said. “The new system instantaneously shows your position, altitude and direction of travel.”
The only airports in Wyoming that have tower service are Casper, Cheyenne and Jackson, he noted, given their higher volume of air traffic. Outside of these cities, pilots rely on their instruments and radio.
“The old radar is located near Lusk,” he said. “Because of the position of our airport, aircraft didn’t show up on radar below 9-10,000 feet anyway.”
They relied on pilots reporting their position by radio, he added.
“With ADS-B,” he said. “We know who’s in the air and where they are regardless of radar coverage.”
More flights out
After eliminating one of their Denver flights in the wake of decreased travel from the coronavirus pandemic, NWRA has just added a second commercial flight to and from the Mile High City. United Airlines, which already had daily commercial service, will now have the second scheduled commuter flight four days a week.
“I was very happy to see United add the additional flights,” Lundell said. “Giving commuters more options is good for everybody.”
A search of the United Airlines website this morning showed basic economy service from Gillette to Denver for $215 round trip.