The automated flight service station adjacent to the Princeton airport that provides weather information for general aviation is scheduled to close in January after operating in Princeton nearly 27 years.
Winning the bid in the early 1980s to have the Federal Aviation Administration locate the station in Princeton was thought to be a coup for the city because of the anticipated economic benefit.
Princeton won the bidding contest against a large number of other Minnesota cities in 1983, declaring it would provide a new 10,000-square-foot building at a rental rate of $1 per year for 20 years.
The city met the $580,000 cost of the building by providing $300,000 in industrial tax increment financing and local business, raising the rest in a fund drive.
Establishing an automated flight service station in Princeton was part of a consolidation move by the FAA. It was to be the only such station in Minnesota, replacing five older flight stations in the state – Minneapolis, Hibbing, Rochester, Redwood Falls and Alexandria. The rationale was that the equipment was getting outdated in the old stations and the new station’s automation could handle all the work the five had been doing.
The city dedicated the new station in 1985, and it sat empty for about a year before the FAA equipped it. City Council members in mid-1986 were frustrated that it still wasn’t operating and passed a resolution calling for the FAA to begin operating it. But that didn’t begin until 1987.
George Freichels, who had a thriving grocery store at that time and is now retired, remembers that one of the motivations for having the station was to boost Princeton’s name.
The station opened with nearly 30 employees — the same number it has today. But the number fluctuated over the years, with a high of 53 employees reported in 2005.
That was the year the FAA conducted another major consolidation of its flight service stations, closing all but 20 of its 58 facilities. Princeton was at the time in former Congressman Jim Oberstar’s district. City Administrator Mark Karnowski surmised that the Princeton station was spared the ax back then because of Oberstar was the ranking Democrat on the U.S. House transportation committee.
As part of the consolidation in 2005, the FAA went to competitive sourcing, meaning it would retain oversight for quality control but would have a private company operate the service station facilities in the lower 48 states. Lockheed Martin won the bid to be the operator of those stations, including Princeton’s. When the city’s 20-year lease of the building to the FAA ended, the city worked out a new $65,000 per year lease of the building.
Lockheed Martin spokesperson Jack Robling issued a announcement last Friday stating that the last day of operation for the Princeton service station will be Jan. 12, 2014, and that the closure would effect 30 employees.
This action is necessary to optimize the structure of the automated flight service station network in the country to “reflect efficiencies, pilot demand and ongoing process improvements to enhance service for pilots,” Robling said.
He added that Lockheed Martin will continue to support pilots with weather briefings from five sites within the United States.
George Lund, who worked at the Princeton station from 1990 to 2008, said some of the Princeton employees will transfer to Leesburg, Va., one of the main flight service station hubs. Lund also said he knows of employees who moved to Alaska to continue work at a flight service station.
“It was a good-paying job when Lockheed Martin took it over,” Lund said of the Princeton station.
Lund, who had come from Hibbing to work at the Princeton station, said the planned closing of the Princeton station is not a surprise because of today’s technology requiring fewer sites to provide weather information for general aviation.
“They (the operators) figure they can just do it from the hubs,” he said. “Princeton is lucky enough that it stayed open as long as it did.”
City Administrator Mark Karnowski said the city had recently spent about $15,000 putting new lights in the flight service station building with the understanding the station would continue operating for an indefinite amount of time.
Recently he received an email from Teresa Emmons at an office affiliated with the FAA out of Fort Worth, Texas, that the last operating day of the Princeton station would be Jan. 12. He said he asked if the planned closing has anything to do with the government’s sequestration, reducing certain expenditures as part of a political deal made in Congress. Karnowski said that Emmons replied the closing has “everything to do with the sequestration.”
Karnowski said that the lease might go for a while beyond Jan. 12 because it will take some time for Lockheed Martin to remove the equipment.
Karnowski also said he is now wondering if the city could get the FAA to detach the station building from the airport in a speedy manner. Having it legally attached to the airport means there would have to be an airport-related business in the building and it would be difficult marketing a building like that, he said.
A detachment process might normally take two years and the city would not want to have to maintain an empty building for that long, Karnowski said.