The Federal Aviation Administration announced Friday it is closing 149 federal contract control towers at small and medium-sized airports, including those in Provo and Ogden, due to the federal spending cuts known as sequestration.
The control towers at the Provo Airport and the Ogden-Hinckley Airport will begin shutting downsometime in the month after April 7 and it’s uncertain when they might reopen. Air traffic controllers at both airports likely will be laid off from Serco, the company that employs them.
Ogden-Hinkley Airport Manager Royal Eccles said his airport uses five air traffic controllers who likely will lose their jobs, while Provo manager Steve Gleason declined to say how many at his airport would be affected.
As a result of the closures, the control towers will have to use an older communications system called UNICOM in order to talk to pilots and manage air traffic. Gleason said making the transition will be difficult and possibly pose safety issues.
“It creates a lot of confusion, and to do this, the safety implications of what the FAA has just done are serious,” he said. “Switching from controlled airspace to uncontrolled airspace is a much more difficult transition. We have to try to find a way to keep everyone on the same frequency and make sure that everyone is talking to each other.”
As a result of sequestration, the FAA must make a 5 percent cut in expenditures, or more than $635 million. Initially, the FAA proposed closing 189 contract air traffic control towers, with affected airports given the opportunity to plead their case to keep them open.
“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 Friday. “Unfortunately, we are faced with a series of difficult choices that we have to make to reach the required cuts under sequestration.”
But National Air Traffic Controllers Association President Paul Rinaldi said the decision will make flying less safe.
“The closure of these air traffic control towers will reduce the overall margin of safety of our entire aviation system,” he said in a statement. “The FAA made a bad situation worse by not utilizing a well-thought-out process for evaluating the value of air traffic control towers before ordering their closure.”
As a result of the cuts, Gleason said the Provo airport and pilots who use it will have to make sure they broadcast at the same frequency as well use updated maps, charts and other information. He also will work with a local flight school to make sure students don’t interfere with regularly scheduled commercial flights, Gleason said.
At Ogden-Hinkley Airport, officials also will have to manage commercial flights in coordination with aircraft from Hill Air Force Base and Salt Lake City International Airport, Eccles said earlier.
FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said in a statement Friday the agency would work “to ensure the procedures are in place to maintain the high level of safety at non-towered airports.”
Gleason said he had yet to hear from the agency about getting help in making the transition.
“They haven’t talked to any of us about it,” he said. “If they’ve got a plan, they’re keeping it well hidden.”
Meanwhile, new air service from both Ogden and Provo to Phoenix through Allegiant Air so far will not be changed. But if it or another airline decides to pull service, it could affect more jobs, Eccles said.
“It could affect the flight schools. It will affect the mechanics,” he said. “It’s huge. This affects everything on the field.”
Gleason said he hopes Congress can come to an agreement about the national budget that ends the sequestration, and the FAA can “see the common sense of putting these control towers back in service.”
“There’s a reason we built the control tower in the first place, and there is a reason we have staffed it,” he said. “And those reasons have not changed. We are trying to protect the flying public.”
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