'Unprecedented': Budget Cuts Could Hit Some Airport Towers : It's All Politics Nearly 200 smaller airports, including Arnold Palmer Regional Airport in Latrobe, Pa., are set to have their control towers closed this year as the FAA makes sequestration cuts. Although commercial flights will continue, some say safety is a concern.

'Unprecedented': Budget Cuts Could Hit Some Airport Towers

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.


And I'm Melissa Block. Next month, control towers at many medium and small airports around the country will shut down. That's because of the federal budget cuts known as the sequester. The towers are staffed by contractors with the Federal Aviation Administration.

NPR's Brian Naylor visited one affected airport in Latrobe, Pennsylvania.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: The Arnold Palmer Regional Airport is named after the golf great, who grew up a well-placed drive from the runway. A statue of him watches over the small terminal. The airport's runway is long enough to handle the Airbus and Boeing jets that Spirit Airlines uses in its daily flights to Florida and other points south. The airport is also a favorite of private pilots who sometimes fly in for lunch, says airport manager Gabe Monzo.

GABE MONZO: You know, transients come in. They call it the hundred-dollar hamburger. And they come in - and fly on the weekends, and come to the restaurant. So it's a nice operation. It's a busy operation but, you know, it's - good thing to have in the region.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Over loudspeaker) We do appreciate your business, and thank you for flying with us today out of Arnold Palmer Regional Airport, on Spirit's nonstop flight service to Orlando...

NAYLOR: Truth be told, it's not always that busy. Spirit's low-fare flights to Florida are popular; but there are only a couple a day, most days. The FAA says it needs to cut $600 million from its budget for the rest of the fiscal year because of sequestration. Its first target: those airports with fewer than 10,000 commercial takeoffs and landings a year, like Arnold Palmer Regional.

Five controllers work in the tower here, employees of a private company under contract to the FAA. It's these contract towers the FAA intends to close - most on April 7th - and a total of 189 by the end of the fiscal year.

Spencer Dickinson, executive director of the U.S. Contract Tower Association, says as many as 1,500 controllers will be laid off. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The executive director was misidentified. He is Spencer Dickerson, not Dickinson.)

SPENCER DICKERSON: Were very concerned about the efficiency and safety of that situation, particularly when you shut down 173 towers on a single day. This is unprecedented. We're very concerned about how this is going to play out. And we're going to do everything we can to keep these towers open, for the benefit of the traveling public.

NAYLOR: Spirit Airlines says it will continue its flights into and out of Arnold Palmer Regional when the tower closes, with help from other controller centers in the region. Thomas Brun is an advertising consultant with a small office at the airport. An experienced pilot as well, Brun says it's much safer flying into controlled airspace, especially one in which large, commercial jets also operate.

THOMAS BRUN: If I'm flying from the west and the airline is coming from the southeast, I have to understand exactly where he is and watch for that plane. And so, it's - you know, it's a much different environment in which to fly than when you have a control tower who is in charge.

NAYLOR: Without a controller on duty, Brun says a lot more responsibility falls on the pilot to announce his presence ,and to be diligent.

BRUN: In uncontrolled airports, I've had a couple of incidents where I - you know, I shuddered a bit. And every now and then, somebody will give the wrong direction; I'm coming from the west when he meant the east. So it's, you know, it's different. It's different. It's better to have a tower.

NAYLOR: As he awaits a flight to Orlando, Sam Shefsick, a retired factory worker, says he doesn't think much of the plan to close the Arnold Palmer regional tower.

SAM SHEFSICK: Me, I don't think that's a safe thing to do. No, absolutely not, nowheres. When they start cutting like that - why don't they go in there to the senators, and the congressmen, and start cutting their paychecks before they take away from the little people, you know?

NAYLOR: Airport manager Gabe Monzo says Arnold Palmer Regional has a $140-million-a-year impact on the community. He says the airport will operate as near as normal as possible if its tower closes next month, following the FAA's guidelines.

MONZO: They call the shots and hopefully, down the road, they settle their differences. But it's a situation where we will deal with it accordingly.

NAYLOR: There might be a reprieve for Arnold Palmer Regional and the other small to midsize airports, in Congress in coming weeks. One senator has proposed an amendment to move money around within the FAA's budget, so that there would be funds to keep the contract towers open. Its fate, like those of the control towers, remains up in the air.

Brian Naylor, NPR News.

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