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FAA to Close Air Traffic Control Towers Due to Federal Cuts

 Abraham Lincoln Capital Airport in Springfield

In this March 12, 2013 photo, an American Eagle jet taxis to a gate past the control tower after landing at the Abraham Lincoln Capital Airport in Springfield, Ill. The airport had been on a preliminary list of airports where towers might be closed, but it was not on the list released Friday. (Seth Perlman/AP)

The Federal Aviation Administration says it will defund the air traffic control towers at airports in Decatur and Bloomington as part of cuts related to the federal sequester.

The FAA is being forced to trim $637 million for the rest of the fiscal year, and the targeted towers are located in nearly every state.

Among the 149 airport towers nationwide that will be impacted, there are five at the St. Louis Regional Airport in East Alton, Central Illinois Regional Airport (CIRA) in Bloomington, the Decatur Airport, Southern Illinois Airport in Carbondale and Waukegan Regional Airport near Chicago.

Those targeted had fewer than 150,000 takeoffs and landings last year. It is unclear how large an impact a closure might eventually have, though aviation businesses prefer to fly out of facilities that have their own dedicated towers.

The FAA did grant some exemptions for economic hardship or where airports served as overflow targets for high traffic facilities.

Since a preliminary list of facilities was released a month ago, the FAA plan has raised wide-ranging concerns, including worries about the impact on safety and the potential financial consequences for 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.

Fran Strebing, who is the marketing director for the Central Illinois Regional Airport, said the airport is searching for other ways to pay for workers salaries and keep their air traffic control tower open.

"Our operation is going to continue," Strebing said. "We’re going to continue to take our flights, and we want folks to be assured that that is the case."

Strebing said the airports needs the tower because it is busier than many other airports on the FAA list --- both in the number of commercial flights and passengers.

"We’re much larger than many of the other airports on the list," she said. "We have a lot of daily traffic. And we also are a diversion airport. We take diversions when there are weather, mechanical issues with aircraft that are headed to some of the larger hubs in our region, such as Chicago/O’Hare, and Indianapolis and St. Louis."

Central Illinois Regional Airport Director Carl Olsonsaid reiterated air traffic control tower will stay open.

"The (Bloomington-Normal Airport Authority) has spent a considerable amount of time preparing for this decision, and we're in the process of implementing a number of steps aimed at continuing air traffic control services here at CIRA for an indefinite period of time until a more permanent resolution can be put into place," said Olson. "However, the airport authority's commitment is to the continued  safe and reliable operations here at CIRA."

Olson said he does not have cost estimates available for the public on maintaining service and he is not yet disclosing other community partners involved in the effort, but he maintained that the airport will be able to maintain tower functions.

Meanwhile, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood of Peoria said the FAA heard from communities across the country about the importance of their towers.

"These were very tough decisions," 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."

Hundreds of small airports around the country routinely operate without controllers. Pilots flying there are trained to watch for other aircraft and announce their position over the radio during approaches, landings and takeoffs.

But the overall air system's safety is built on redundancy. Taking away the controller's extra set of eyes is like removing stop signs or traffic lights from city intersections and forcing drivers to be more vigilant and cautious, said Paul Rinaldi, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.

"That's what the pilot is going to have to do now," said Rinaldi, whose group represents nearly 15,000 FAA-employed controllers as well as some staff at privately run contract towers.

"A pilot is now going to have that extra duty of making sure that everybody seems to be doing the right thing on a crowded" radio frequency, he said.

Pilots will have to do that on top of flying the airplane or maneuvering it on the ground, "which is not an easy thing to do," Rinaldi added. "It's not like driving a car."

Some aviation experts say overnight shifts should have been eliminated regardless of the sequester at facilities that don't see enough traffic to justify the expense. The budget cuts being forced on the FAA could provide the agency with political cover to make some of those changes.

"There's a tendency over time to have Congress direct more money to small airports than would probably be economically justified," explained Robert Poole, an aviation analyst at the Reason Foundation think tank.

He said his own initial review of the list released Friday showed that many of the towers are at airports with few or no scheduled passenger flights, suggesting there will be little effect on airline service.

Rinaldi acknowledged that "just maybe there are some that don't warrant" air traffic control services.

"But I would bet the vast majority of them do," he said.

The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association is urging pilots to refresh their knowledge of operations at non towered airports, such as right of way rules, collision avoidance procedures, and non standard flight operations.

The FAA will begin closing the air traffic facilities starting April 7.