The air traffic control tower is shown at the Ramona Airport in Ramona, California© REUTERS/ Mike Blake
WASHINGTON, March 22 (By Sasha Horne for RIA Novosti) The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced Friday it will close 149 air traffic control towers run by contractors at small and mid-sized airports across the country due to the mandatory federal budget cuts known as sequestration, leaving many in the airline industry questioning how it might affect safety.
“The real concern that we have is that the reductions and tower closings are really kind of arbitrary and there are a number of other cost saving measures that could be considered,” said Heidi Williams, vice president of air traffic and modernization for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), an organization that objected to the cuts.
“At a number of towers on the list there is a varying mix of operations—everything from glider activity to corporate jets and everything in between,” Williams told RIA Novosti Friday.
Most of the roughly 5,000 US public airports don’t have control towers, but Williams said air traffic controllers add an additional layer of safety.
Of the 189 towers that were on a proposed closure list released earlier this month, 149 towers will be shut down beginning April 7. The FAA said that closing the additional towers “would have a negative impact on the national interest.”
“We heard from communities across the country about the importance of their towers and these were very tough decisions,” Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a statement. “Unfortunately we are faced with a series of difficult choices that we have to make to reach the required cuts under sequestration.”
The FAA announcement affects smaller airports that have fewer than 10,000 commercial arrivals or departures spanning dozens of states.
As is the case with the Frederick Municipal Airport in Maryland, located less than an hour outside of Washington, its 106-foot tower which is now on the list to close, was opened less than a year ago with $5.3 million in federal stimulus money.
Now it is the government’s forced federal spending cuts, which leaves employees like air traffic controller Mamie Ambrose out of a job.
"It's so much irony, it's almost ridiculous and laughable," Ambrose said in an interview with CNN.” I mean, we're all so disgusted with it."
The closures are part of the $85 billion in federal government spending cuts which went into effect March 1. The FAA was tasked with finding $627 million in cuts from its budget by September 30.
A variety of voices in Congress as well as celebrities have spoken out against the proposed closures.
“It’s about safety and jobs,” said Hollywood actor and private pilot Harrison Ford, while addressing the House General Aviation Caucus on March 19, according to media reports.
But some in the aviation industry don’t think towers at smaller airports are necessary. “I think if pilots were realistic, they would understand that in smaller areas that have towers, they could operate without them or at least cut back on the hours,” said Jim Retzlaff, airport manager at West Bend Airport in Wisconsin, which operates without air traffic control towers.
Retzlaff said in the 34 years he has worked out of West Bend as a pilot and now in management, there has never been a collision due to lack of air traffic control.
“When pilots land in an uncontrolled airport, there are set procedures in place,” Retzlaff told RIA Novosti, which includes constant communication during takeoff and landing with other nearby pilots in the sky.
“As pilots, we don’t have a death wish, we want to stay safe,” Retzlaff added.
The FAA 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.
“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 in a statement.
While 24 towers that were on the proposed closure list will continue to receive FAA funds, another 16 towers that were initially on the chopping block will continue to operate under a "cost-share" program, using Congressional funds previously set aside for them, a spokesman for AOPA told RIA Novosti.
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