| New York, March 18
New York, March 18 When landing a plane amid
birds, bobcats or alligators, it helps to have an air traffic
controller on the lookout.
But many small airports across the United States face losing
this extra pair of eyes starting April 1, as budget cuts at the
Federal Aviation Administration threaten closure of 189 air
traffic control towers.
Controllers direct planes to prevent collisions. In places
like the Naples Airport in southwest Florida, a busy hub for
vacationers that is among those threatened with a tower closure,
they also choreograph the delicate dance of aircraft and
animals, said Executive Director Ted Soliday.
"If an animal runs across the runway, they'll see it first.
Alligators, they take a little while to get across the runway.
Bobcats, the little dog thing, coyotes. If they see a flock of
birds, they'll alert a pilot: 'Caution, birds at your one
o'clock," Soliday said.
The planned closures, which will slice up to $50 million
from the FAA's $16 billion budget this fiscal year, are part of
$85 billion in across the board government cuts that went into
effect on March 1, slashing spending at federal agencies and
hitting programs from defense to medical research.
The FAA will also find savings through a planned hiring
freeze, cuts to other contracts, and furloughs of its 47,000
employees. These actions are expected to reduce the number of
manned runways at the larger airports staffed by the FAA,
leading to delays of up to 90 minutes during peak periods.
Without air-traffic controllers, small airports typically
rely on pilots to alert each other by radio to their positions
and to sequence landings. While that system works at
less-trafficked runways, directors at busier airports worry
about the risk of accidents without their control towers.
Runways are like busy road intersections that need working
traffic lights, said Brian Hughes, who oversees Trenton-Mercer
airport in New Jersey, another airport facing tower closure. The
airport is used by low-cost carrier Frontier Airlines, as well
as corporate jets from pharmaceutical companies Merck
"If the traffic signal goes out," he said, "you're going to
have a certain amount of accidents and road rage."
Safety will not be compromised by the closures, the FAA said
adding the towers were chosen to affect the lowest number of
"We're not going to do anything that isn't safe," FAA
Administrator Michael Huerta told a congressional hearing last
month. But "if you don't have a tower on the facility, it is
certainly going to be less efficient."
Citing dangers from wildlife strikes to bioterrorism, as
well as economic losses, airport directors and municipal
officials have scrambled to try to convince the FAA to keep
their towers operational. An FAA spokeswoman said the agency had
received a "heavy volume" of letters.
This week, the agency will release the final list of towers
slated for closure from April.
FLIGHT SCHOOLS TO CORPORATE JETS
Though the control tower is often the first thing passengers
on commercial flights see on landing, most of the country's
5,000 publicly used airports don't have them. In addition to the
292 operated by the FAA itself, another 251 are staffed by three
private companies: Midwest Air Traffic Control Service, Robinson
Aviation (RVA) Inc, and Serco Inc, through a public-private
program called the FAA Contract Tower Program (FCT).
All 189 towers targeted for closure are FCT-operated,
and have fewer than 150,000 takeoffs and landings or 10,000
commercial flights a year. They cater to corporate jets and
individuals with private planes. Many also house flight schools,
serve as hubs for smaller airlines, or provide relief capacity
for larger airports nearby.
At last month's congressional hearing, the FAA's Huerta said
that because much of the Transportation Department budget is
exempt from cuts, the FAA is shouldering 60 percent of
sequestration-driven reductions for the department, he said, a
total hit to its budget of $627 million.
Cancelling the FCT contracts would save $45 million to $50
million through Sept. 30, the end of fiscal year 2013.
The affected airports serve municipalities ranging in size
from the small city of Wheeling, West Virginia to the suburbs of
such major U.S. cities as Chicago, Boston and Detroit.
Most pilots will be able to handle the loss of control
towers at smaller airports by being extra alert, said Robert
Worthington, president of the United States Pilots Association,
which has a membership of around 3,000 recreational or private
"For the typical general aviation pilot, it is probably not
going to create a real big problem," he said. "What it will do
is probably cause some inconvenience."
But others worry accidents - and insurance rates - will
rise, and the trend could frighten away the general public from
recreational flying. In interviews and letters to the FAA, many
airport directors and pilots cited safety as their main concern
about the closures.
"CEREAL CITY" AFFECTED
In Battle Creek, Michigan, known as "Cereal City" for
the headquarters of food giant Kellogg Co, the W.K.
Kellogg airport also faces the loss of its tower. That airfield
is used not just by the company but by the Battle Creek Air
National Guard, Duncan Aviation, a private jet maintenance
company with more than 600 employees, and the College of
Aviation at Western Michigan University, one of the largest in
the country, Battle Creek Transportation Director Lawrence
The resulting mix of aircraft - corporate jets, military
aircraft, and slower planes used by student pilots - makes
having a tower important, said Chad Piper, Kellogg's director of
"We are professionals on our end," he said. "But on the
other end, they are student pilots, trying to learn, and there
are mistakes. We have higher risks than other airports."
Hank Kelly, a private pilot whose single-engine Cessna plane
is based at Dutchess County airport, about 85 miles (137 kms)
north of New York City, said the tower controller is a
ringmaster who guides fliers through a complex choreography.
"It's kind of a solitary experience landing a plane," he
said. "But you're dependent on that person sitting in that