FAA set to close 149 air traffic towers due to budget cuts

The control tower at Coleman A. Young International Airport is shown in Detroit March 8, 2013. AP Photo

CHICAGO Under orders to trim hundreds of millions of dollars from its budget, the Federal Aviation Administration released a final list Friday of 149 air traffic control facilities that it will close at small airports around the country starting early next month.

The closures will not force the shutdown of any of those airports, but pilots will be left to coordinate takeoffs and landings among themselves over a shared radio frequency with no help from ground controllers. All pilots are trained to fly using those procedures.

The plan has raised concerns since a preliminary list of facilities was released a month ago. Those worries include the impact on safety and the potential financial effect on communities that rely on airports to help attract businesses and tourists.

"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," FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said in a statement.

The FAA is being forced to trim $637 million for the rest of the fiscal year that ends Sept. 30.

All of the towers on the FAA's list are "contract towers," meaning they're staffed by private-sector controllers rather than the agency's controllers. CBS News reports the agency has sent furlough notices to all 47,200 of its employees, including its 14,750 air traffic controllers. They'll all be furloughed one day out of every two weeks.

The changes are part of the across-the-board spending cuts known as sequestration, which went into effect March 1.

All of the airports targeted for tower shutdowns have fewer than 150,000 total flight operations per year. Of those, fewer than 10,000 are commercial flights by passenger airlines.

Airport directors, pilots and others in the aviation sector have argued that stripping away an extra layer of safety during the most critical stages of flight will elevate risks and at the very least slow years of progress that made the U.S. aviation network the safest in the world.

Airlines have yet to say whether they will continue offering service to airports that lose tower staff. Any scaling back of passenger service could have major economic impact for communities.

The 149 air traffic facilities slated to begin closing on April 7 are all staffed by contract employees who are not FAA staffers. There were 65 other facilities staffed by FAA employees on the preliminary list of towers that could be closed. A final decision on their closure will require further review, the FAA said.

The agency is also still considering eliminating overnight shifts at 72 air traffic facilities, including some at major airports like Chicago's Midway International and General Mitchell Airport in Milwaukee. There was no word Friday on when a decision will come.

Mark Hanna, director of the Abraham Lincoln Capital Airport in Springfield, Ill., says without ground controllers as backup, the risk to operate "goes up exponentially," especially at airports like his, which have such a broad mix of aircraft types: everything from privately operated Piper Cubs to the larger passenger planes of United and American airlines.

His airport has an FAA-staffed tower that could be closed.

That an aviation sector as sensitive as air traffic control could become subject to political brinkmanship in Washington was especially frustrating, he said.

Hoping to escape the final cut, airport directors were left to argue with the FAA about whether the closure of their facilities would adversely affect what the agency described in a letter as the "national interest."

After reviewing those responses, the FAA decided to keep open 24 towers, including one at the Kissimmee Gateway airport serving Orlando, Fla., and the Denver area's Front Range airport.

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