The only 24-7 air traffic control tower in the Dakotas will stay open through the night, after North Dakota's congressional delegation pleaded with the Federal Aviation Administration to keep the Fargo facility open at all times.
The Hector International Airport tower was on a national list of 72 facilities scheduled for a possible reduction in hours of service. Officials say the change would have limited the airport's ability to provide necessary flight services to the region and make pilots less inclined to land in Fargo during off hours.
"Having that eye in the sky in the tower is very important," said Shawn Dobberstein, Fargo Municipal Airport Authority executive director. "I think a pilot appreciates it and has a certain level of safety in mind by talking to a controller at an airport where you're actually going to land."
The Fargo airport employs 26 air traffic controllers. Two of them are on duty during the midnight to 6 a.m. shift.
Jim Sweeney, president of the Fargo Jet Center, a private aviation services provider, said 24-hour tower service is "critical and important to the entire aviation community" and helps his company attract international business.
"We're promoting Fargo as a customs entry for big private jets to land in Fargo and then go on to the West Coast," Sweeney said. "They would rather not fly into an uncontrolled airport. Especially if you're coming in from an eight-hour flight from overseas, you want to talk to a control tower that's watching everything for you in an airport that you're not familiar with."
Dobberstein said there aren't a lot of planes that land in Fargo between midnight and 6 a.m., but the airport is the base for emergency medical flights National Guard firefighting operations. It's the primary diversion airport for Minneapolis and Winnipeg, Manitoba. Last month, a cargo plane from Venezuela could not get into Winnipeg and landed in Fargo at 3 a.m.
The air traffic control tower at the airport in Sioux Falls, South Dakota's largest city, shuts down in the early morning hours. The airspace is turned over to the Minneapolis controllers.
Dobberstein said the Fargo tower is among the facilities that are reviewed about every three years by the FAA. This is the fourth time since 2005 that airport officials have been asked to defend their operations, he said.
"We're worried every time we have to go through this," Dobberstein said.
North Dakota Sens. John Hoeven and Heidi Heitkamp and Rep. Kevin Cramer told the FAA that legislation passed to avoid furloughs for air traffic controllers gives the agency the budget flexibility it needs to keep the Fargo facility open 24 hours. The FAA agreed.