By: Bart Jansen
WASHINGTON — The Federal Aviation Administration announced Friday it would close 149 air-traffic control towers that direct flights at smaller airports across the country.
The airports range from Phoenix Goodyear airport in Arizona to Ithaca Tompkins airport in Ithaca, N.Y. Also to see their towers shut: Sacramento Executive airport in California’s state capital, St. Louis (Mo.) Regional and Philip Billard Municipal in Topeka, Kansas’ state capital.
Control towers are scheduled to close at Riverside Municipal Airport, Whiteman Airport in Pacoima, Fullerton Municipal Airport, Brown Field in San Diego and Ramona Airport in San Diego County, according to the FAA.
The towers will close April 7, as part of $85 billion in federal spending cuts across the government. The closures are part of $637 million that FAA must cut by Sept. 30.
“We will work with the airports and the operators to ensure the procedures are in place to maintain the high level of safety at non-towered airports,” said FAA Administrator Michael Huerta.
An additional 16 federal contract towers under the “cost share” program will remain open because Congress sets aside funds every fiscal year for these towers.
“We heard from communities across the country about the importance of their towers and these were very tough decisions,” Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said. “Unfortunately, we are faced with a series of difficult choices that we have to make to reach the required cuts under sequestration.”
The announcement affects towers operated under contracts with FAA that have fewer than 10,000 commercial arrivals or departures and 150,000 general-aviation operations per year.
“Contract towers have long been an integral part of the FAA’s system of managing the nation’s complex airspace, and the decision to shutter these critical air-traffic control facilities on such an unprecedented and wide-scale basis raises serious concerns about safety — both at the local level and throughout the aviation system,” said Spencer Dickerson, executive director of the U.S. Contract Tower Association.
Despite a lack of controllers, airports could remain open with pilots communicating with each other for landing and taking off. But airport officials and controllers warned the closures would reduce safety and hurt local economies and military operations that depend on the smaller airports.
The FAA has also announced that most of its 47,000 workers will have unpaid furloughs one day for every two-week pay period through the end of September.
The furloughs taking effect in April could cause flight delays at the busiest airports during the busiest times of day, which transportation officials warn may also prompt airlines to cancel flights.
The FAA is also expected to close up to 43 towers with fewer flights where agency controllers work. But the agency hasn’t yet announced which ones or where midnight shifts will be eliminated for controllers.
Closing the towers raises some safety concerns, despite the small number of annual flights.
One airport on the list, Lakeland Linder Regional Airport in Central Florida, warned that the closure would hurt a Sun ‘n Fun aviation event involving 5,000 aircraft and 200,000 visitors between Tampa and Orlando.
The event is scheduled to start two days after the closure, from April 9 to 14. But in the past FAA has sent 50 air-traffic controllers and technical-operations staffers to the airport to help manage 15,000 takeoffs and landings during the event.
“The tower at LAL is not a luxury but rather is essential to the operation of this facility,” Eugene Conrad III, the airport director, wrote in a letter to the FAA.
Many of the contract towers support military training and emergency medical flights.
Another airport on the list, Lonestar Executive Airport north of Houston, supports training for 24 Apache Longbow helicopters that rotate to Afghanistan. The military flies 10 missions and five maintenance flights each day — half of them at night, according to Lt. Col. Michael Odom, who commands the 1-158th Attack Reconnaissance Battalion.
“In summary, the closure of the â€1/8 tower would result in a less safe airport and a less beneficial training environment,” Odom wrote to the FAA.
Lonestar is also home to aviation units for Customs and Border Protection, and the Drug Enforcement Administration.
“Consequently, it is clear that the national interest is being served each and every day at this airport,” Alan Sadler, a county judge wrote to FAA in support of the airport.