The air traffic control tower at Sonoma County's regional airport may be shut down if the nation's elected leaders can't reach a budget deal by Friday, a scenario some fear could limit commercial passenger flights in and out of Santa Rosa or halt them entirely.
The control tower, which employs about a dozen federal employees, is on a list of 200 facilities at smaller airports that Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood warned Friday could be shut down as part of automatic spending cuts scheduled for March 1.
Alaska Airlines, which operates ten daily flights in and out of Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport, could continue to offer that service if the control tower shut down, said John Stout, the airport manager.
But he said pilots of the 76-seat turbo-prop planes flown by the airline would be on their own to guide the aircraft in and out of the airport, as would non-commercial pilots of smaller planes.
Stout said Alaska already operates out of several airports nationwide that lack air traffic control. The airline's first daily departure and last arrival at the Sonoma County airport also are without the assistance of controllers because the tower is closed during those hours.
But Stout said “it's always better when you have extra eyes.”
Stout said he tried reaching Alaska on Friday to ask what the airline intends to do if the Sonoma County tower is closed. Airline representatives did not return several messages left Friday and Saturday seeking comment.
About $1.2 trillion would be automatically cut from federal spending over the next decade if President Obama cannot reach a budget-reduction agreement with Congress by Friday. That amounts to about $85 billion in the remaining months of this fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.
The legislative process that would force the cuts is known as a “sequester.”
Lahood said 100 control towers from the proposed closure list could ultimately shut down by April 1 if an agreement isn't reached by Friday's budget deadline. The Federal Aviation Administration would meet with air-traffic controllers and airlines to decide which of the towers would be shuttered.