It’s been a roller coaster few weeks for Trenton-Mercer Airport in Ewing. Even as Frontier Airlines announced that it was adding more flights to its busy schedule at the airport, including flights to Chicago, Columbus, Atlanta, Detroit, and Raleigh-Durham, NC, starting Monday, April 8, the FAA announced that the airport would be one of 149 throughout the country that would lose its air traffic controllers due to the federal budget sequester.
In addition, Frontier announced last week that it would temporarily suspend flights from September 9 through November 8 — traditionally a slow time for the travel industry — to permit installation of new safety features on the airport’s longest runway.
County executive Brian Hughes worried that the looming closure of the FAA control tower due to the federal sequestration budget cuts could affect the future economic viability of the airport. “It’s a fragile environment,” Hughes said. “You want people to believe that this airport is safe. We’ve had a 100 percent safety rating going back 10 years. But if people don’t think it’s safe because the tower is empty, even though Frontier has a long history of working in airports without air traffic controllers in the past, the public could lose trust in the airport.”
Frontier spokeswoman Kate O’Malley said Frontier would continue to operate as normal at the airport despite the lack of a control tower, and was going ahead with plans to begin flights to additional cities on April 8, bringing the total number of cities served to 10.
Most small airports around the world lack a control tower and are considered uncontrolled. Airports that have towers that are closed at night are also considered uncontrolled. At such airports, pilots follow standard procedures to keep their movements predictable and radio nearby planes directly instead of going through a tower. O’Malley said Frontier already flies out of several such airports.
“We don’t see a negative impact until you get to inclement weather,” she said. “The nice thing about having a tower is that when you have inclement weather, you can get updated runway conditions from the tower. Inclement weather does increase the chance that we might have to divert to another airport.”
The post-Labor Day closure will enable the installation of a safety system on the airport’s longest runway. The EMACS system being installed is a pad of crushable concrete blocks that is designed to stop an airplane from going off the end of a runway in case of a crash landing.
By the time the airport is reopened customers should count on paying to park their cars. With the parking lot being filled on a regular basis and a new one under construction, the days of free parking at the airport are numbered.
“People expect to pay to park at airports and we are going to charge what the typical fees are for parking,” Hughes said, though he did not give a specific date for the change.
The maintenance and safety issues are not being taken lightly at the airport. At a March 15 press conference Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno announced that the state will grant the airport $2.5 million to rehabilitate three of its taxiways and install lights and pavement markings, the beginning of a $12 million project. About $150,000 will come from the county and the rest from the U.S. government.
At the press announcement, Hughes took reporters on a brief tour of a taxiway. To the untrained eye, the blacktop looked blacker and smoother than almost any other road in Ewing township. But the taxiway, which connects two runways at the airport, is nearing the end of its life.
“See that?” said Hughes, pointing to a crack in a nearby concrete apron. “All you need is for one piece of concrete to get loose and land in one of those engines and you have a $30 million jet on the ground.” The smallest pebble would be enough to wreck the huge turbofan engines that propel the Airbus A-319 passenger jets that Frontier has been operating at Trenton-Mercer since November. To keep those planes flying all of the surfaces have to be in pristine condition.
Officials at the press conference, most of whom have witnessed a parade of airlines trying — and failing — to sustain a presence at the airport, indicated that they are pinning their hopes for the future of the economy of Mercer County on those few thousand feet of tarmac.
“The project is going to allow me to market New Jersey as we have already as the best educated place to do business and also the most perfectly located place to do business,” Guadagno said.
Department of Transportation commissioner James Simpson called the airport an asset that would cost “billions of dollars” to build from scratch.
Ewing Township Mayor Bert Steinmann said he has heard increased interest from companies wishing to relocate in Ewing since Frontier started flying out of Trenton-Mercer. “As a result of it, I’ve had more and more inquiries about corporate projects,” he said.