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Federal cuts could close Felts air traffic tower

Federal budget cuts that went into effect last week could result in closure of the Felts Field air traffic control tower and elimination of the tower night shift at Spokane International Airport.

Larry Krauter, CEO and airport director, said the cuts could come as early as April 7 unless Congress comes up with a way to restore funding.

The Federal Aviation Administration has notified airports that it will discontinue air traffic control services at 189 smaller airports across the country, including Felts Field and Walla Walla Airport.

Towers at those airports are operated by private firms under contract with the FAA.

In addition, nighttime tower operations would be eliminated in Spokane and Pasco in Eastern Washington.

At SIA, the cuts would mean the loss of air traffic control operations from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.

While the cuts will not prevent aircraft from landing and taking off, they will hamper smooth airport operations and increase the risk to public safety, Krauter said.

Northwest MedStar uses Felts Field for its operations along three flight training schools. Felts Field is also a base for corporate flights, general aviation and air freight.

Felts Field has about 52,000 landings and takeoffs annually.

When air traffic is busy during the day, the air traffic control operators at Felts provide additional eyes on the sky for overall safety of all air traffic in the region, Krauter said.

“The air space can get pretty busy,” he said.

Krauter said he has been in contact with the state’s congressional delegation about the risks of losing air traffic control service.

He said that he is hoping that Congress will restore FAA funding when it considers a continuation of the federal budget later this month.

In Spokane, air traffic could stop completely during nighttime and early morning hours when fog reduces visibility, Krauter said. Aircraft need tower controllers to guide them during those episodes.

Fairchild Air Force Base has been using SIA to land planes during episodes of low visibility because SIA has an advanced landing system. That option for Fairchild aircraft would be lost at night, Krauter said.

Allegiant Air has notified the airport that cuts in air traffic control services could result in a 20 percent reduction in that airline’s flights. Allegiant recently started direct weekly flights from Spokane to Honolulu.

The proposed cuts stem from a budget deal adopted by Congress in 2011 that was intended to force a compromise between Democrats and Republicans on budget cuts and taxes. The cuts are known as a sequestration of money and are being made across all government agencies, including defense.

The cuts to FAA are one of the more visible federal services.

If the cuts remain in effect, the airports in Spokane and air carriers serving the city will have to find ways to adjust to the new budget amounts, Krauter said.

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