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Regional Airlines Intend To Keep Flying If Control Towers Close

Beth Redfield

According to an airport industry association, control towers at 14 small to medium sized airports around the Northwest will close on April 1 in response to automatic federal budget cuts: Four in Idaho and five each in Oregon and Washington. But regional airlines intend to keep flying to those cities they now serve.

The Federal Aviation Administration pays a government contractor called Serco to staff the control towers at smaller Western airports. Now the private air traffic control suppliers say the agency has notified them that their contracts will be cancelled effective April 1-- absent any last-minute budget agreement. Control towers staffed directly by the FAA also face potential cutbacks, but that process is taking longer to work out.

SkyWest Airlines spokeswoman Marissa Snow says commercial flights can still land at an airport even if the control tower closes.

"We actually already fly into airports that do not have manned towers," Snow says. "That traffic is controlled at a regional level." Snow asserts that "it is completely safe" to continue operating into those airports.

SkyWest serves five Idaho destinations under the Delta Connection brand and flies to southern Oregon airports under the United Express banner. An Alaska Airlines spokeswoman said in an email that it too has procedures in place to maintain small city service.

The director of the U.S. Contract Tower Association confirmed that the FAA told its member companies they will get notice "no later than Monday" that their federal contracts will be canceled next month.  "It's no April Fool's joke," says Spencer Dickerson. "We are concerned about safety and efficiency."

In a joint letter to the air controllers union and airline industry associations, U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said they anticipate that airlines in general will "change their schedules and cancel flights" as they grapple with air traffic control cutbacks. Huerta told a Congressional oversight panel on Wednesday that the FAA looked for airports with the least activity when it drew up its list of control towers for possible closure. The criteria for getting on the list were having fewer than 150,000 takeoffs and landings per year and fewer than 10,000 commercial operations per year.

The FAA has also said it may eliminate "the midnight shift" at 60 busier control towers to save money. Airports on that list include Boise, Spokane International and Boeing Field in Seattle.

Earlier this week, Congressional Republicans expressed frustration that the FAA could not find cost savings elsewhere before resorting to controller furloughs and tower closures.

"The sky isn't falling," said Representative Sam Graves (R-MO) at a committee hearing Wednesday. "We're not going to have more meteors hit because of sequestration. I don't understand why the administration continues to take this attitude that the world is absolutely falling apart as a result of this."

On the Web:

Possible airport control tower closures - Federal Aviation Administration 
Statement on Impact of Sequestration on FAA Contract Tower Program - USCTA

Northwest air traffic control towers are at risk of closure by the FAA: 

  • Lewiston (Served by Alaska/Horizon Air, Delta Airlines)
  • Twin Falls, ID (Delta) - FAA-operated tower
  • Hailey/Sun Valley (Horizon, Delta)
  • Pocatello (Delta)
  • Idaho Falls (United Express)
  • Yakima (Horizon Air)
  • Walla Walla (Horizon) - local cost share keeps tower open at least through Sept.
  • Grant County/Moses Lake - FAA
  • Snohomish County Airport/Paine Field - FAA
  • Renton Municipal
  • Olympia Regional
  • Tacoma Narrows
  • Spokane/Felts Field
  • Klamath Falls (Served by United Express)
  • North Bend/Coos Bay, OR (Seaport Airlines; United)
  • Pendleton (Seaport Airlines)
  • Salem
  • Troutdale-Portland

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.