Budget Cuts Silence Some Air Traffic Control Towers

David Greene talks to Yvette Aehle, director of the Southwest Georgia Regional Airport, about her plans to shut down the airport's air traffic control tower. Because of sequestration, the FAA will no longer pay for air traffic controllers at 144 smaller airports.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

OK. It's been a month since automatic spending cuts went into effect. Many Americans have not yet felt the impact, but that's soon going to change. And people who fly out of small, regional airports could be among the first to notice.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

One hundred and forty-nine of those smaller airports are set to lose their air traffic controllers, with the FAA cancelling contracts. Now, to learn more about the impact of this, we spoke with Yvette Aehle. She's director of the Southwest Georgia Regional Airport in Albany, Georgia.

And Ms. Aehle, thanks for joining us.

YVETTE AEHLE: Thank you for having me.

GREENE: So tell me if you can about your airport in southwest Georgia. Where exactly is it, and what's it like there?

AEHLE: We're about three hours south of Atlanta. We are the retail capital of southwest Georgia, and we are the only airport down here in southwest Georgia. So we serve a very important purpose.

GREENE: Do you have commercial flights and private flights?

AEHLE: Yes. We have a Delta commuter that comes in three times a day for flights to Atlanta. UPS flies in a few times a day to sort freight. And we also have military training flights to help pilots with their military readiness, as well as small, general aviation airplanes. So we have a mixture, which is very interesting that our tower is closing, because of the mix of airplanes that we have that all fly different speeds, different altitudes. And it's going to be quite challenging for pilots.

GREENE: Well, let me sort out exactly what's happening with this funding. I mean, you have the FAA. They have these budget cuts. Big city airports, I mean, there are going to be furloughs, different hours for air traffic controllers, but they're going to keep controllers on duty. But small airports like yours, the air traffic controllers are on contract, and you're actually losing all of them. You are not going to have any air traffic controllers.

AEHLE: That is correct, not unless the city steps forward and is able to negotiate a contract with them. And that's what we're considering right now.

GREENE: So is this unheard of, operating an airport with no one in the tower?

AEHLE: Well, it's not unheard of. I mean, there's lots of airports around America that do not have an air traffic control tower. However, we've always had one. And to go back to being an uncontrolled airport is not something that we're used to doing and don't want to do.

GREENE: What does mean, an uncontrolled airport? I mean, where are their pilots, kind of who are they talking to when they're getting directions and so forth?

AEHLE: We have a common traffic frequency that they will all switch to, and they will all talk to each other. Pilots know there's a typical pattern, and they know how to fly in and land on our runways. But it's going to be a see-and-be-seen. And the closest metaphor that I can explain to people is it's like having a stoplight, and then going to a flashing red light.

GREENE: I don't know if passengers would be really excited to hear that we're going to use a metaphor for a traffic light for an airport. I mean...

AEHLE: Yeah. That's not something that we like to see happen, either, but it's not something it's unheard of. I mean, other airports do have uncontrolled fields, but it's just not something that pilots like. Obviously, when you're mixing the kind of airplanes that we're mixing and they're having to look out for each other, listen to what other pilots are doing, you know, it could lead to a mistake.

GREENE: I hear you using words like mistake and more of a chance for error. I mean, it sounds like it is less safe to fly in and out of your airport if things are working out this way.

AEHLE: Well, I don't really want to say anything is less safe. It's just a better opportunity for people to listen and to be heard and to understand where they are. And also, I'd like to point out that we don't have 24-hour tower coverage here currently. Those air traffic controllers are only directing traffic between 8 am to 8 pm seven days a week. And most of our heavy traffic is outside of those hours.

GREENE: Well, this sounds like a very important point. Most of your traffic already is flying in and out of your airport without any air traffic controllers at your airport.

AEHLE: Yes. Yes. Yes.

GREENE: So this is not a stunning change for you.

AEHLE: No. It's not a stunning change, but that's not something that we'd like. So that's why we're going to the city to ask them to come up with the money. But that's not what the city's duty is to do. The FAA's duty is to separate traffic, and we just feel that the FAA is not completing their core mission.

GREENE: Well, whatever happens, best of luck in this transition, and thanks so much for talking to us about it.

AEHLE: No problem. Thank you very much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: OK. That's the situation at a small airport. We'll be telling you about other impacts of the sequester later this week.

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