Travel Scene: Looming ATC Cuts Raise a Towering Ruckus
March 29, 2013
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  • By Bob Retzlaff

    Cutbacks in air traffic control operations are causing concern at many airports around the country, including in the Upper Midwest, although Rochester International Airport is apparently unaffected.

    Under budget limits mandated by sequestration, the Federal Aviation Administration is required to cut $637 million from this year’s budget. As a result, air traffic control operations — and operators — will be cut back sharply, particularly at small airports and some medium-sized airports where air traffic is lowest.

    The FAA plans on entirely shutting down air traffic control operations beginning April 7 at 149 control towers manned by third-party contract personnel, which includes the facility at La Crosse Municipal Airport. Critics argue, unsuccessfully at this point, the action will strip away an extra layer of safety during takeoffs and landings, leaving pilots to manage the most critical stages of flight on their own.

    La Crosse has four contracted air traffic controllers who staff the tower between 6 a.m. and 9 p.m. Nighttime flights are uncontrolled.

    Other aspects of the cutbacks include mandatory furloughs among FAA-employed controllers and other employes.

    In most cases, all of these measures generally affect airfields with less than 10,000 commercial flight operations — takeoffs and landings — per year. Rochester International Airport handles some 40,000 operations yearly and, at this point, “seems to be immune” from these measures, said Deputy Airport Director Kurt Claussen.

    Up in arms

    Around the country, pilots, airport officials, politicians representing the affected areas and others are up in arms over the FAA moves. All pilots are trained to land without help by communicating among themselves on a common radio frequency. But airport directors and pilots say, according to an Associated Press account, there is little doubt the removal of that second pair of eyes on the ground — the tower operators’ — increases risk and will slow the progress that has made the U.S. air system the safest in the world.

    The AP notes it’s not just private pilots in small planes who stand to be affected. Many of the airports in question are served by major airlines, and cuts could also leave towers unstaffed during overnight hours at some big-city airports, including Chicago’s Midway and General Mitchell Airport in Milwaukee.

    The plans have prompted airlines to review whether the changes might pose problems for commercial service that could mean canceling or rescheduling flights. Officials at La Crosse Municipal, in arguing against the tower closure, point out the airfield served about 5,000 soldiers last year since it is the primary air hub for nearby Fort McCoy. The airport also functions as a training facility because of its proximity to Volk Field, located at the fort.

    Also, closing the tower would require National Guard troops from Wisconsin and Minnesota to find another location for training exercises — La Crosse handled 2,166 military flights in 2012. In Wisconsin, the list of towers that are expected to be closed are those in Eau Claire, Kenosha, Janesville, Oshkosh, Waukesha and Mosinee, as well as Timmerman Field in Milwaukee.

    In Minnesota, the FAA intends to close tower operations at St. Cloud Regional Airport, Anoka County-Blaine Airport, Flying Cloud Airport in Eden Prairie and Crystal Tower at Crystal. Additionally, the FAA may end overnight tower service at the Duluth Airport, according to Minnesota Public Radio.

    Various airports in Iowa also are affected by the moves, according to Iowa media reports.

    In order to shave costs further, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said that FAA employes — all 47,000 of them — likely will have to be furloughed for one day per pay period until the end of September in order for the agency to meet its share of the $85 billion in cuts that will affect many segments of the federal government. Nationally, this move is expected to result in a 10 percent reduction in manned air tower hours.