Air tower directing fewer area flights

VIENNA – The price of aviation fuel, a struggling economy and belt-tightening by the military may be some of the reasons local air traffic controllers say there are fewer flights to monitor.

Mostly, leaders at the Youngstown-Warren Regional Airport and the Federal Aviation Administration tower here attribute the drop in flights to a steady decline in the number of privately owned airplanes traveling in and out of the airspace.

“With the prices of gas, people can’t afford to fly,” local Air Traffic Manager Michael Silvius told members of the Western Reserve Port Authority Wednesday. Calling the numbers “alarming,” reports show total air traffic numbers for the first five months of this year declined by about 15 percent compared to last year from 32,360 in 2012 to 27,353 in 2013. Those numbers represent every flight that “talked” to the tower.

The dip, he said, creates new challenges to keeping the tower operational, an important tool in the airport’s continued quest to secure daily commercial flights.

“As our numbers keep going down, it’s harder to justify our existence,” Silvius said.

Along with providing additional safety for pilots, Director of Aviation Dan Dickten and port authority Chairman Scott Lynn agreed that the tower is an important negotiating tool in ongoing talks to land a daily carrier.

Dickten agreed with the causes Silvius suggested.

“Corporate activity is actually up,” Dickten said. “But the recreational pilot is not out there flying as much with the price of gas.

In addition, load factors, or the percentage of seats filled on commercial flights, are increasing as the number of flights decrease. The trend is not unique to Youngstown.

“Airlines bring fewer airplanes and put more people on them,” Silvius said.

As a result, the number of Youngstown-Warren Regional Airport passengers has continued to grow, while the number of flights decline. Statistics show, for example, 12,357 passengers flew in and out of the local airport last month, more than any month since June 1992.

An expected reduction in military flights prompted by federal budget belt tightening known as sequestration also may contribute to further decline in numbers. The 910th Airlift Wing based out of the Vienna Air Force base shares the local runway and tower.

For now, Silvius said the local tower is not in jeopardy, but still, he offered a suggestion for making its operation stay attractive.

He recommends the elimination of an unnecessary overnight shift at the tower.

“We talk to about one airplane every three nights. I am in support of closing the midshifts. I think for longevity, this will help the tower out,” Silvius said, noting the tower would be less expensive to operate.

He said the tower employs 26 people, but he expects four retirements in the next 12 to 16 months. If the midnight shift were eliminated, those positions would not be replaced, he said.

Dickten agreed that eliminating the midnight shift and associated costs would put the tower in a better light.