The U.S. will close 149 air-traffic control towers run by contractors at small- and mid-sized airports beginning on April 7 as a result of automatic budget cuts at government agencies.
The Federal Aviation Administration spared 24 towers on its original list of 173 subject to closing, it said in an e-mail yesterday. All the towers being shut down are run by private companies, not the government as at larger facilities.
The shutdowns will be phased in over four weeks. About 750 to 1,100 controllers and supervisors may lose their jobs, said Spencer Dickerson, executive director of the Alexandria, Virginia-based Contract Tower Association.
“Unfortunately we are faced with a series of difficult choices that we have to make to reach the required cuts under sequestration,” Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in an e-mailed statement.
Airports losing their towers averaged 54,000 flights in 2011, the most recent year for which FAA data are available. Four had fewer than 20,000 landings and takeoffs, according to agency data.
The airports losing their towers have mostly general- aviation traffic, with smaller amounts of charter and military flights. Of the group, 13 averaged at least one airline arrival and departure per day in 2011, according to the FAA.
Central Illinois Regional Airport in Bloomington, Illinois, had the most airline flights of those airports with 4,835, according to the data. Pinnacle Airlines Corp. (PNCLQ) operates flights there under contract to Delta Air Lines Inc. (DAL)
Among the towers being spared are ones at airports in San Carlos, California; Jacksonville, Florida, and Meridian, Mississippi. The FAA spared the 24 facilities because airport operators convinced the agency that closing them “would have a negative impact on the national interest,” according to the agency statement.
Planes, including airliners, can continue to fly to airports without functioning towers. Most of the roughly 5,000 U.S. public airports don’t have towers. Instead of being guided by controllers, pilots radio each other to coordinate landings and takeoffs, according to FAA procedures.
Advocates for pilots and airports said shutting the towers will harm safety and impose economic hardship on businesses such as flight schools that rely on controllers to guide planes.
“The White House does not understand the consequences of these actions, or they do and they simply do not care,” Craig Fuller, president and chief executive officer of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, a Frederick, Maryland-based advocacy group, said at a town-hall meeting March 21 at DuPage Airport in West Chicago, Illinois. “Either way, this approach is dangerous and should not stand.”
Some Republican lawmakers said President Barack Obama’s administration was using the tower cuts for partisan gain.
“The FAA must reevaluate its decision, and the White House must put an end to its political charade,” Representative Jim Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican, said in a release.
Representative Bill Shuster, a Pennsylvania Republican who is chairman of the House transportation committee, and Senator John Thune of South Dakota, the top Republican on the commerce committee, wrote to LaHood asking for more information on the closings.
FAA Administrator Michael Huerta told Congress Feb. 27 there wasn’t a choice on whether to shutter most private towers. The private tower program is one of the agency’s largest contracts, he said.
The 15,000 controllers employed by the FAA will be forced to take one unpaid day off every two weeks starting April 21, which will aggravate delays at some of the busiest U.S. airports, including Chicago O’Hare and Atlanta’s Hartsfield- Jackson, he said.
The FAA must cut $627 million out of its $16 billion budget by the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30, Huerta said.
Dickerson said it was unfair for the government to shut down more than half the 251 private towers while sparing government-run facilities. The association represents firms that run the towers.
“Controllers at contract towers perform a host of important functions, including separating aircraft, issuing safety and weather alerts, and assisting with military, emergency response, and medical flights,” Dickerson said.
Airlines for America, a Washington trade group representing large carriers, said its members have no plans to cancel or suspend flights because of the closures, Jean Medina, the group’s spokeswoman, said in an e-mail.
Airports pay a portion of the operating costs at 16 private towers that will remain open through Sept. 30, and other local officials can use that option to keep their towers open, according to FAA rules.
No FAA air-traffic facilities will be shut down for at least a year, Doug Church, spokesman for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association union, said in an e-mailed statement.
The FAA’s union contract requires that controllers get at least a year’s notice before a facility is closed, Church said. The agency Feb. 22 issued a list of 49 FAA towers that were subject to closing in addition to the private towers.
Union President Paul Rinaldi said in an e-mail the tower closings were a poor way to balance the budget.
“Ultimately, the partisan posturing in Washington that led to sequestration is the reason for today’s decision and its destructive effects on aviation,” Rinaldi said.
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