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Felts Field will lose air traffic controllers

Sat., March 23, 2013

FAA coping with budget cuts

The Federal Aviation Administration has affirmed a decision earlier this month to close air traffic control operations at Felts Field and other small airports around the country beginning April 7.

The closures at 149 airports stem from budget cuts in Congress that involve a “sequestration” of spending across most government agencies, including defense. The FAA cuts amount to $637 million.

The list of closures was pared back from an earlier plan to close 189 air traffic towers. The list of actual closures includes towers in Lewiston and Pendleton, Ore.

All of the airports involved have tower crews that work through a contract with the FAA.

Spokane airport officials have been trying to get the decision reversed, arguing that tower operations at Felts are in the national interest. They also told the FAA that closure of tower operations requires an environmental review, cost-benefit analysis and a safety review.

Airport officials in Spokane said the budget cuts may also mean elimination of a night shift of tower controllers at Spokane International Airport.

“We heard from communities across the country about the importance of their towers and these were very tough decisions,” Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a news release. “Unfortunately we are faced with a series of difficult choices that we have to make to reach the required cuts under sequestration.”

In a letter to the FAA on Friday, the Spokane airport through its attorney, Pablo O. Nuesch, said, “The harm to Spokane, the airport’s aeronautical users and the greater Spokane community is substantial and immediate. All will be subject to the increased risk of physical harm, loss of life and catastrophic property damage.”

The closures will not force any 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 pilots at the hundreds of airports in the country without tower controllers.

The airports targeted for tower shutdowns have fewer than 150,000 total flight operations per year.

But the overall air travel system’s safety is built on redundancy. Taking away the controller’s extra set of eyes is like removing stop signs or traffic lights from city intersections and forcing drivers to be more vigilant and cautious, Paul Rinaldi, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, told the Associated Press.

The FAA might eliminate overnight shifts at 72 additional air traffic facilities, including Spokane International, AP reported.

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