The Glacier Park International Airport control tower and this summer’s planned Thunderbirds air show have been added to the growing list of possible victims of looming across-the-board federal budget reductions.
The sequestration cuts set to take effect on March 1 threaten to ground all U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds shows this year.
Separately, a list released Friday indicates Glacier Park International could be one of 100 small airports around the country that could lose control-tower funding if budget cuts take effect. Helena Regional Airport also is on the list.
USA Today reported Friday that the U.S. Department of Transportation lists 200 airports, of which 100 would be selected for possible tower closure. The targeted airports for the final list of 100 would be based on meetings involving the Federal Aviation Administration, air-traffic controllers and airlines.
Glacier Park International Airport Director Cindi Martin said closure of the control tower here wouldn’t affect airport operations.
“It’s important to remember this airport operated for over 60 years without a tower,” Martin said, noting the air-control tower was built in 2001.
The Glacier Park International tower is open from 8 a.m. to midnight. That means the airport operates with uncontrolled air space outside of that time frame, Martin said.
Aircraft are tracked by the Salt Lake City airport radar system until they enter Glacier Park’s five-mile airspace. If the tower closes, pilots would use visual flight rules as they did in pre-tower days.
Martin pointed out that a bigger effect from sequestration may be the reduced staffing at larger airports.
The U.S. Department of Transportation sent a letter to aviation stakeholders on Friday, warning that automatic spending cuts could force the FAA to furlough the “vast majority” of its employees.
“Flights to major cities like New York, Chicago and San Francisco could experience delays of up to 90 minutes during peak hours because we will have fewer controllers on staff,” the letter states.
Martin said if carriers begin having 90-minute delays, “they’ll start canceling flights” and fewer passengers will take a financial toll on the industry.
The air show planned here is in a similar predicament if sequestration takes hold, but the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce will continue to plan to host the Thunderbirds for the Mountain Madness Air Show on July 20-21 until it hears otherwise, Chamber President Joe Unterreiner said.
“As of today, the Thunderbirds have committed to us and we have committed to them for an air show in Kalispell,” Unterreiner said Wednesday.
In a statement Friday, an Air Force spokeswoman said: “At this time the plan is to cancel all flyover support for public events and air shows as of March 1 if sequestration is enacted. This will also include cancellation of the entire Thunderbirds 2013 season effective April 1.”
Unterreiner said the International Council of Air Shows says flight demonstration teams will continue to prepare for the season through March 31.
“In the meantime, we will continue to move through our checklist and preparations and monitor the sequester and other potential actions that might impact the Mountain Madness Air Show,” Unterreiner said.
Unterreiner pointed out that any number of events could impact the elite flight demonstration team’s ability to perform a given air show.
That has happened in the past if the pilots touched wing tips or got into a more serious accident and had to stand down to practice or if they were mobilized for military interventions overseas.
This year, federal budget woes are just the newest addition to that list of uncertainties that could cancel an Air Force show.
The Thunderbirds are scheduled to fly in 33 air shows this year.
“This is an unprecedented time and we are working diligently to make the best possible decisions given the budget constraints we face,” said the Air Force statement from Wendy Verhegi. “We understand these decisions impact the American people and we may miss the opportunity to engage and connect with communities such as Kalispell.”