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Manchester airport tower battle takes off

New Hampshire Union Leader

February 27. 2014 10:14PM

MANCHESTER — New Hampshire's congressional delegation is calling on the Federal Aviation Administration to reject a proposal to cease operating the control tower at Manchester-Boston Regional Airport during the overnight hours.

The joint-letter from the state's two senators and two representatives, sent Thursday, comes after Mayor Ted Gatsas similarly called on FAA Administrator Michael Huerta to maintain the 24-hour operation of the tower.

"Eliminating the midnight shift at MHT (the airport code for Manchester) is an unsafe means to achieve nominal FAA staffing benefits. For these reasons, we urge you to deny this request," states the letter, which is signed by Sen. Kelly Ayotte, a Republican, and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, Rep. Carol Shea-Porter and Rep. Annie Kuster, all Democrats.

While air traffic is lower during the overnight shift, from midnight to 6 a.m., than it is during the day, Manchester's airport is a designated diversion site for New England in the event of severe weather and other emergencies.

"We are concerned that this request, if approved, would create an unnecessary safety risk for both the aircraft and airport personnel that rely upon an operational tower at MHT during this shift," the letter states.

In addition, the delegation notes, the airport is home to the Dartmouth-Hitchcock emergency medical helicopter.

"Restricting the use of this critical emergency aircraft — as this request will do — jeopardizes the safety of our constituents who may not be able to get the care they need in a timely manner," the letter states.

The outcry from congressional leaders and city officials was prompted by a recent memo from the airport's federal director of air traffic operations, Mary Sherer, to the regional FAA administrator indicating that there was support from "local stakeholders" for reducing the operating hours of the tower.

Gatsas strongly disputed this contention in his letter.

The volume of flights at the Manchester airport has declined 40 percent over the past six years, as airlines have increasingly concentrated service at larger hubs, in particular at Boston's Logan Airport.

Manchester airport officials say the airport could still be in service overnight if the tower does not operate, but it would have to rely on complex communications and navigation equipment.

A spokeswoman for the FAA did not respond to questions on Thursday.

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