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There was no one in the control tower

My sister was flying into Medford to arrive around midnight the Wednesday before Christmas. Her plane circled and circled and finally flew her to Seattle. The pilot said: "Sorry folks, nobody is in the tower." Seriously? Why would this happen?

— Susan C., White City

Yes, it's true, there was no one in the tower at that time of night.

However, the Medford airport control tower has been staffed 15 hours daily for many years, and generally planes come and go without incident. More than likely, visibility was the issue.

The Federal Aviation Authority has contracted for controllers to cover essentially two-thirds of the day — from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. Like many other government positions, air traffic controllers are not federal employees.

Between 9 and 11 p.m., the Eugene tower runs the Medford airspace, and from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., Seattle controllers have control.

It's on particularly foggy nights when there isn't enough visibility that airplanes are diverted to other cities, said Robert Russell, airport deputy director for operations.

Between 6 a.m. and 9 p.m., ground crews can cloud seed to clear the air when temperatures drop below freezing. The rest of the time, pilots are more likely to skip town rather than take chances on landing in the fog.

"We're working with Seattle and the FAA to allow us to do that," Russell said. "We hope to have a plan in place by next winter."

Although it varies by airline, pilots need at least 1,200 feet of visibility and often 2,000 feet. Russell said commercial airliners are more frequently diverted to Eugene or Portland.

"Every few years, we make a run at the FAA asking for them to budget for more contracted controllers," Russell said. "But there's never been enough money to add controllers going back to the Reagan Administration."

 — Send questions to “Since You Asked,” Mail Tribune Newsroom, P.O. Box 1108, Medford, OR 97501; by fax to 541-776-4376; or by email to youasked@mailtribune.com. To see a collection of columns, go to mailtribune.com/youasked. We’re sorry, but the volume of questions received prevents us from answering all of them.