The Federal Aviation Authority hasn't had any complaints in at least a decade about Rapid City Regional Airport's air traffic controllers, a profession under increasing scrutiny after several high-profile incidents.
Multiple cases of overnight controllers falling asleep while on duty have drawn the most attention, but airport executive director Cameron Humphres said that has never been a problem here for a simple reason: Even though the airport accepts flights 24 hours a day, the tower is only in operation from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. Humphres said there are procedures for landing when a tower is closed.
Humphres said it is his understanding that there sometimes is only one person on duty in the Rapid City tower, but that the norm is more than one. The National Air Traffic Controllers Association has warned against putting controllers alone on shifts.
Tony Molinaro, spokesman for the FAA's Great Lakes region, which includes Rapid City, said he hasn't seen any incidents involving Rapid City in his 11 years on the job.
But Humphres said he has never had any incidents with the Rapid City air traffic control, which is run by a private company, Midwest Air Traffic Control Service.
"I'm very comfortable with all of our controllers that we have out here," he said. "We have good, professional controllers, and they do a really good job."
Representatives at Midwest declined to comment.
Nationally, 27 airport facilities that offer overnight service were ordered by the FAA to keep at least two controllers on duty instead of the one used in the past. The rule change was part of a reaction to recent air traffic control incidents that led to the resignation this week of a top FAA official.
If something were to happen to the controllers in the Rapid City tower -- recent incidents at other airports have included controllers falling asleep or getting locked out -- Molinaro said planes can get assistance from control stations at Ellsworth Air Force base and in Denver.
Those stations have radar and can work to keep planes from getting too close in midair, though they can't work to prevent collisions on the Rapid City runway.
Humphres said the Rapid City air traffic controllers are particularly good at managing the use of the airport's single runway, especially during the complicated task of snow removal.
"You can imagine the orchestration that's required during snow-removal operations with one runway," he said. "You have aircraft that are trying to take off and land in the middle of snow, plus we have vehicles that have to get onto the runway to remove the snow. Our controllers do an outstanding job of that."
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