Leesburg’s leaders are hoping to receive an all-clear from the Federal Aviation Administration that could make the addition of a control tower at one of the busiest general aviation airports in the commonwealth a reality.
But the path to a control tower at the airport could be a turbulent one. That is why Town Council members are hiring a lobbyist to help them navigate the path of funding and construction of the project at Leesburg Executive Airport.
The town is planning to use new technology that creates a remote, virtual control tower. The Leesburg airport already is set up to test the system, which has not yet been approved for use in the United States.
Tuesday night, the Town Council approved a resolution authorizing Town Manager Kaj Dentler to engage the services of a federal lobbyist to secure the town airport’s acceptance into the Federal Contract Tower Program and influencing the inclusion of the tower project in the federal fiscal year 2018 appropriations bill. The resolution also authorizes letters to be sent to both the Board of Supervisors and the Virginia Department of Aviation asking them to share in the cost of hiring a federal lobbyist, estimated at around $36,000 total for a nine-month period. The funds for a lobbyist would be taken out of vacancy savings from the Leesburg Police Department, Dentler said.
Establishing a control tower at the airport has been cited as a priority ofthe town’s Airport Commission for several years, as aircraft operations increased. Currently, pilots departing or landing at the airport must coordinatewith each other over the radio, announcing their intentions to depart or land and via which runway.
“There’s no person [at the airport] saying you’re cleared to land or take off,” Airport Manager Scott Coffman said.
This creates not only a safety concern, but also is a deterrent for some customers to establish operations at the airport, Councilman Marty Martinez noted during Monday’s council work session.
“A lot of charter companies will not land at a non–controlled [airport],” he said. “With a control tower we can get a lot of business coming here.”
Addressing both safety and the business opportunities are two primary reasons for moving toward a control tower, Airport Commission Chairman Dennis Boykin said. Another is being able to better manage the challenges of being located within the secure airspace near Dulles Airport.
“Everyone who’s looked at this technology thinks it’s the right solution,” he said.
The choice to move toward a remote tower versus a manned tower comes down to cost. While the construction of a manned tower runs $6 million or more, a remote tower—which could be housed in any office space, even off airport grounds—is under $4 million, Boykin said. The expected staffing costs of a remote tower, approximately $650,000 a year, would be borne entirely by the FCT program.
Although Leesburg makes a compelling case for acceptance into the FCTprogram—at 115,000 aircraft operations a year it is outpaced only by Manassas in terms of traffic for the state‘s general aviation airports—it may not be an easy road to gain acceptance. According to a staff report, in 2014 the FAA placed a moratorium on new entrants to the FCT Program. Of the 400 towers in the U.S., 253 are funded through the FCT Program, and a cost/benefit analysis is done to determine a community’s entry into the program.
Remote towers are also a new world for the FAA, and perhaps the next great horizon in aviation safety. But Leesburg could establish itself as a leader in that new frontier, and perhaps already has. In 2014, the town entered into an agreement with VSATS and Saab to host a test program for the Remote Air Traffic Control System. The rTower is a video-based system that presents a view of the airport environment to an air traffic controller who issues directions to the pilots. The system is expected to begin its final phase of testing this summer, Coffman said, and from early June to September the rTower will be actively controlling traffic into and out of Leesburg Executive Airport. The data gathered will then be collected and go back to the FAA, and safety experts will evaluate it and make a determination if the system is approved for use in the U.S., he said. With no funding programmed in the FCT Program to continue operating the rTower beyond the summer, the need for a permanent solution, and thus the services of a federal lobbyist, arises.
“The FAA is very reluctant to change anything,” Councilman Hugh Forsythe, a retired Air Force pilot, said. The remote tower program, “is new. They’ve got a lot of questions. Having a lobbyist there that can present our program to them is going to be a huge asset.”
Councilman Tom Dunn was the lone dissenter on the vote Tuesday.
“To hire a lobbyist is a spinning of the roulette wheel. We don’t know what number we’re going to end up on, if any number,” he said.
Dunn also criticized the funding source for the lobbyist — police department vacancies — and said it is another example of using money towards “short-term goals rather than long-term desires.”