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New air traffic control towers among those on chopping block

By Mike M. Ahlers, CNN
March 22, 2013 -- Updated 1356 GMT (2156 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The FAA will announce which of 189 air traffic control towers will be closed
  • The towers, some recently built, will be closed due to forced spending cuts
  • Agency will close the "vast majority" of towers, letters to airports say

Washington (CNN) -- At 106-feet tall, the new control tower at Frederick Municipal Airport in Maryland could be called monumental.

On Friday the nation will learn whether it's a monument to government dysfunction.

Opened last May with a $5.3 million from one federal government program, the tower could be closed because of another. The stimulus package -- a 2009 law spearheaded by President Barack Obama to jump-start the economy -- was Santa Claus, giving Frederick the new tower. The forced spending cuts -- which went into effect March 1 -- are The Grinch threatening to shut the tower down.

"It's so much irony, it's almost ridiculous and laughable," said Mamie Ambrose, one of the controllers expected to lose her job. "I mean, we're all so disgusted with it."

FAA says 173 air traffic control towers will close April 7

Altogether, 238 towers are on the chopping block. On Friday, the FAA is focusing on 189 low- or moderate-volume towers staffed by contractors. In letters to the airports, the FAA said it expects to cut funding to the "vast majority" of the towers.

But the sharpest sting may be felt at those towers that have just opened, often at great government expense and at personal sacrifice to people who moved to accept the controller posts.

At least three towers, like Frederick, were built with federal stimulus money and still have that "new car" smell.

At Albert Whitted Airport in St. Petersburg, Florida, a tower built to withstand 130 mph hurricane winds was dedicated in July. It was built with $1 million in stimulus money and $2.1 million in congressional earmarks.

At Opa-locka Executive Airport, near Miami, the federal government spent almost $1.9 million in federal stimulus money on the new control tower.

Both are likely to be axed.

"It makes no sense," said Craig Fuller, president of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, a national group headquartered at the Frederick airport.

"Tragically something is going to happen, and then were going to review this decision and, I'm sure, roll back some of the cuts they are considering now," Fuller said.

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The FAA says it is facing an untenable situation. By congressional mandate, it must cut nearly $600 million from its nearly $48 billion budget this fiscal year. Because the majority of its 47,000 employees are air traffic controllers, it is impossible to cut its budget without affecting controllers, the agency says.

The FAA is furloughing employees, eliminating midnight shifts at some control towers and reducing maintenance on non-critical facilities. In an effort to affect the fewest travelers, the FAA said it is targeting lower-volume airports -- those that have fewer than 150,000 operations a year (a takes off or landing is an operation) and fewer than 10,000 commercial operations.

The 238 towers fall under those thresholds, including 49 FAA-staffed towers and 189 contractor-staffed towers. The FAA cuts to be announced Friday focus solely on the contract towers.

The FAA said it will consider keeping a tower open if the airport convinces the agency it is in the "national interest" to do so. The FAA received 1,000 letters from the airports appealing the action. It has declined requests to make those letters public.

But in letters released by the airports, many have cited their use by the military and medical flights, and their roles as "reliever airports" for nearby airports as evidence of their national significance.

Closing towers will not meaning closing airports. Aircraft can use services from other FAA facilities or can use a common radio frequency to announce their intentions to take off or land.

The FAA says the closures will not impact safety.

But contract controllers disagree.

Airports can make case to keep towers open

If the FAA said building the tower would improve safety, controller Ambrose says, how can it argue that closing the tower won't hurt safety?

Controllers say closing the towers will eliminate one layer of safety -- the extra set of eyes in the tower -- while contributing to the workload at other FAA towers, which will themselves be affected by furloughs.

The FAA said it will manage the system by reducing volume, not reducing safety. As a result, flights to major cities such as New York, Chicago and San Francisco could experience delays of up to 90 minutes during peak hours when the effects of furloughs are felt later this spring. "Delays in those major airports will ripple across the country," the FAA says.

The most immediate impact will be on non-commercial flights. The 189 contract towers handle approximately 20% of all airport operations nationwide, but less than 2.5% of commercial operations, the FAA says.

Advocates for contract towers argue they are suffering a disproportionate amount of pain.

"The rest of the FAA's budget is getting a 5% haircut; the contract towers are getting a 75% cut, because the FAA is cutting 189 of the 251 contract towers," Spencer Dickerson of the U.S. Contract Tower Association told CNN.

CNN Correspondent Rene Marsh contributed to this report.

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