Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Federal ‘sequester’ could shut down airport tower

Manager says field ‘not going to close’


By KATHERINE WUTZ
Express Staff Writer

Airport controllers at the Friedman Memorial Airport in Hailey prepare a Horizon Air flight for departure to Los Angeles on Tuesday morning. Federal budget cuts may close the tower at Friedman, but airport staff say the closure wouldn’t compromise commercial flights. Photo by Willy Cook

The air-traffic control tower at Friedman Memorial Airport is on a list of potential towers slated for closure if a series of automatic federal budget cuts go into place on Friday, March 1. But despite that looming dark cloud, airport Manager Rick Baird said he’s not panicking yet.

“We may lose the tower, but I guarantee we are not going to close,” he said.

The air-traffic control tower at Friedman is one of 238 air-traffic control towers slated for possible closure if the budget of the Federal Aviation Administration is cut by $600 million.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told the press Friday that the Transportation Department plans to close air-traffic control towers at 100 airports that have 150,000 flights or fewer each year. Decisions on which towers to close will come out of meetings held among the FAA, air-traffic controllers and airlines.

Closures would begin by April 1, and other cuts that could cause flight delays and cancellations should be in full force by then, LaHood said.

Also on the list are the Idaho Falls Regional Airport, the Lewiston-Nez Perce County Airport, the Pocatello Regional Airport and the Joslin Field-Magic Valley Regional Airport in Twin Falls. Overnight air-traffic controller shifts could be eliminated at the Boise Airport as well, though that tower would remain open.

Baird said that while the tower at Friedman is on the list, he is not sure that the budget cuts—known as the sequester—will even go through, let alone that cuts would result in the closure of the tower.

“Obviously, there’s a lot of posturing going on,” he said. “Federal agencies are trying to let our nationally elected delegations know if [the sequester] happens, what the impact might be.”

But loss of the tower does not necessarily mean the loss of commercial air service. SkyWest Airlines spokeswoman Marissa Snow said Tuesday that the airline expects little effect from sequestration cuts.

“While it can be difficult to predict the full impact of an initiative that has not yet been implemented, we anticipate sequestration as proposed today would have minimal impact to our operations in Sun Valley,” she wrote in an email.

Baird pointed out that the airport only built a tower in 1989, and has been accepting commercial flights to the airport since 1960.

“There are air carriers that fly to untowered airports all over the nation,” he said. “I’m sure they don’t like that, they would rather it be towered, but they do it.”

Commercial flights can land and take off from airports without an operational tower, he added, simply by using different protocol.

Baird said flights going into and coming out of Sun Valley would communicate with a tower in Salt Lake City, which could cause delays but would not halt flights. Baird said that without a tower, pilots are more responsible for communicating with one another in the air and on the ground to ensure “separation,” or an acceptable distance between planes.

The closures focus on towers that conduct fewer than 150,000 operations or 10,000 commercial flights per year. Currently, the Friedman Memorial Airport handles 40,880 operations a year total, including private flights. But Baird said the mountainous terrain surrounding the Wood River Valley means pilots communicate more heavily with the control tower.

“When you take everything into consideration about how technical it is to get everything in and out of the valley, we have a huge need for this tower,” he said.

The FAA said Friday that it would also cut costs by furloughing the “vast majority” of the agency’s 47,000 employees for one day per pay period and reduce preventative maintenance on some equipment. 

The agency stated in a news release that flights to major cities such as New York, Chicago and San Francisco could experience delays of up to 90 minutes during peak hours if the number of controllers is reduced. 

Kate Wutz: kwutz@mtexpress.com

 

Budget cuts to hit Idaho schools

Idaho schools will also suffer if the automatic budget cuts are implemented beginning March 1. The Associated Press reported this week that Idaho could lose $3.7 million in funding for primary and secondary education, which could mean job losses for 50 teachers and teacher’s aides. Thirty fewer schools would receive federal funding. About $2.9 million would be lost for support for students with disabilities and about 170 fewer students would receive aid to help them finance the costs of college. About 40 fewer students would be eligible for work-study jobs to help them pay for college.




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