Air traffic control towers brace for shutdown

The FAA has reportedly told 173 contract air traffic control towers at smaller airports across the country that they will be shut down on April 7 due to the sequester.

Some 173 air traffic control towers at smaller airports across the country have been notified that they will be shut down on April 7 due to mandatory government spending cuts, an air traffic controllers group says.

Spenser Dickerson, executive director of the U.S. Contract Tower Association, told MSN News the Federal Aviation Administration informed the affected contract tower operators this week of the latest timeline for closures due to across-the-board cuts known as sequestration. The FAA said another 16 contract towers will be closed on Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year, Dickerson said.

The FAA did not immediately respond to a telephone call from MSN News on Wednesday seeking comment.

The agency has previously said it was considering closing up to 189 contract towers and 49 FAA-staffed towers and mandating one-day furloughs for the majority of its employees by Sept. 30 as part of a plan to reduce its spending by $600 million. It had said it would start the facility shutdowns in April.

"It's been chaos, it's been unorganized. FAA had initially told us there would be 168 towers closed on April 1. Then they backtracked. And now the number went up 173 and closes on April 7," Dickerson told MSN News by telephone on Wednesday.

The FAA list of air traffic control facilities that could be closed can be seen here.

The agency said it would consider removing individual towers from the list if a convincing argument can be made that it's in the national interest to keep them open, Dickerson earlier told CNN.

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Contract towers are towers at smaller airports that are staffed with contractors instead of FAA employees.  There are 251 such towers across the nation, meaning they will feel the brunt of the FAA's budget cuts.

"We're deeply concerned about it. We're disappointed and very discouraged that FAA has continued this path versus trying to find ways to keep the towers open," Dickerson told MSN News.

FAA Administrator Michael Huerta told a House committee on Feb. 27 that the mandatory spending cuts would be felt across the agency.

"Under sequestration our flexibility is very limited because we must cut proportionately from all affected accounts. We can’t move money around and we have limited flexibility to choose what it is that we’re able to cut," Huerta testified.

"Now a very large portion of the DOT’s (Department of Transportation) budget is exempt from the sequester. What this means is that the FAA will take more than 60 percent of the sequester cuts for all of the DOT, even though our agency makes up only about 20 percent of the department’s budget. Now, within the FAA, the airport grant program also is exempt from the sequester. So this again limits the choices we have on where to cut the money," he said.

Dickerson and other opponents of the contract tower program cuts say the closures could make it less safe to fly.

"Is the system going to be unsafe on April 7? FAA says it's not doing anything to jeopardize safety and I hope they're right," Dickerson told MSN.

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