Yielding to legal challenges and safety warnings, the Federal Aviation Administration said Friday it will postpone until June 15 its plan to close air traffic control towers at 149 airports across the country, including five in North Carolina.
It was a last-minute reprieve for two dozen air traffic controllers who had expected to lose their jobs Sunday in Kinston and over the next few weeks at airports in New Bern, Winston-Salem, Hickory and Concord.
The closings were announced in March as part of $637 million in spending cuts ordered at the FAA, after the so-called sequestration stalemate reached when Congress and President Barack Obama failed to agree on a deficit reduction plan.
Ray LaHood, the U.S. transportation secretary, agreed with critics who argued that more time was needed to prepare pilots for landing and taking off without FAA support at the affected airports.
This has been a complex process, and we need to get it right, LaHood said Friday in a news release. Safety is our top priority. We will use this additional time to make sure communities and pilots understand the changes at their local airports.
That was good news to John Greene, air traffic manager at the Kinston Jetport tower, two days before his tower had been scheduled to close.
Absolutely nobody wanted it to end like this, Greene said Friday. You hate to see anybody lose their jobs, but our biggest concern was a safety issue. This tower has operated since 1974, and its something that shouldnt be switched off like that.
The closings are targeted at smaller airports where the FAA pays private contractors to hire and manage traffic controllers. The traffic controllers at larger airports are employed directly by the FAA.
Many of the agencys 15,000 controllers across the country have been warned to prepare for furloughs unpaid time off one day every two weeks. The FAA also has said it might have to eliminate overnight shifts in the airport towers at Fayetteville and Greensboro.
Is it safer with towers?
Closing towers does not force airports to shut down. It makes pilots responsible for communicating directly with each other when they land or take off.
Pilots are all trained to fly into airports without towers, said Richard Walls, a deputy state transportation secretary who oversees the state Aviation Division. There are lots of airports in North Carolina that have similar operations, and they operate safely without towers. But is it safer with towers? Of course.
These are the states midsize airports. Of the five slated to lose FAA towers, New Berns is the only one served by commercial airlines, though each of the five has hundreds of planes coming and going every week.
Last year the five airports reported a combined 184,000 takeoffs and landings. By comparison, Raleigh-Durham International Airport, the states second-largest, handles much larger aircraft but logs only a few more runway operations with 187,000 planes landing or taking off during the year.
The five midsize airports still face the prospect of losing their traffic controllers in two months, unless other funds are found to keep them working.
If theres no tower, youre on your own, said Jack Trabucco, manager of Tidewater Air Services at Coastal Carolina Regional Airport in New Bern. Youve got to watch out for yourself. Youve got to talk on the radio. You just give out information so you wont get in other peoples way, and they wont get in your way.
Other federal agencies have said they will reduce services in response to across-the-board budget cuts, but the FAAs action was seen as one of the first dramatic examples of painful government reductions.
Unfortunately, the administration is using these tower closures as the poster child for sequestration, said J. Spencer Dickerson, executive director of the U.S. Contract Towers Association, a Washington-based industry group.
Pawn in the chess game
Dickerson spoke earlier in the week, before the FAA said Friday the towers would stay open until mid-June. His group was one of several organizations that filed suit in federal court this week to stop the closings.
We dont think aviation safety should be a pawn in the chess game in Washington, Dickerson said.
Meanwhile at Kinston this week, the FAA had construction workers fixing a leaky roof at the control tower that had been scheduled to close Sunday. The FAA recently installed new navigation equipment in the tower, too.
Weve got some projects going on here at Kinston, Greene said. You hate to see that stuff installed and nobody here to use it.
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