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FAA to close 149 air traffic towers under cuts

  • In this Nov. 26, 2012 photo, the air traffic control tower is seen at Southern Illinois Airport in Murphysboro, Ill. (AP Photo/The Southern, Joel Hawksley)

CHICAGO — Under orders to trim hundreds of millions of dollars from its budget, the Federal Aviation Administration on Friday released a final list of 149 air traffic control towers that it will close at small airports around the country starting early next month.

The closures will not force any of those airports to shut down, but pilots will be left to coordinate takeoffs and landings among themselves over a shared radio frequency with no help from ground controllers. Those procedures are familiar to all pilots.

Since a preliminary list of facilities was released a month ago, the FAA plan has raised wide-ranging concerns, including worries about the effect 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.

Airlines have yet to say whether they will continue offering service to airports that lose tower staff. The trade group Airlines for America said its member carriers have no plans to cancel or suspend flights as a result of the closures.

The FAA is being forced to trim $637 million for the rest of the fiscal year that ends Sept. 30. The agency said it had no choice but to subject most of its 47,000 employees, including tower controllers, to periodic furloughs and to close air traffic facilities at small airports with lighter traffic. The changes are part of the across-the-board spending cuts known as sequestration, which went into effect March 1.

The airports targeted for tower shutdowns have fewer than 150,000 total flight operations per year. Of those, fewer than 10,000 are commercial flights by passenger airlines.

Airport directors, pilots and others in the aviation sector have argued that stripping away an extra layer of safety during the most critical stages of flight will elevate risks and at the very least slow years of progress that made the U.S. aviation network the safest in the world.

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