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149 air traffic towers to close under cuts

March 23, 2013 12:23:38 AM PDT
Nearly 150 small airport control towers around the country will be shut down starting early next month due to automatic spending cuts.

Thomas Close, a retired United Airlines pilot who has been flying for decades, had a perfect landing in Pacoima Friday. But while the air traffic controllers in the Whiteman Airport tower were guiding him in, two and a half weeks from now, he'll be taking off and landing on his own, thanks to the FAA's control tower closings.

"It does create safety complications," Close said.

The tower closures will strike 11 general aviation airports in California. They include the towers at Southern California airports in Fullerton, Oxnard, Riverside, Victorville and Lancaster, as well as Whiteman Airport, which is run by L.A. County's Department of Public Works.

"Effectively, we've had an extra set of eyes taken away. When you take away air traffic controllers, you take away a level of safety," county spokesman Bob Spencer said.

"There's a lot of traffic coming and going from here," said Lou Pizarro, a private pilot. "If it was Agua Dulce, I'd understand. But Whiteman Airport, it's really busy. You need a tower here."

Though the closures come only at small airports, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association says they could cause problems in the skies all across the country.

"I mean obviously, it's going to be reducing the safety margins throughout the entire national airspace system," said Mike Foote of the Air Traffic Controllers Union. "Consider it like a four-way stop. Everybody's gonna be on their own. They're gonna come up to a stop and decide whether they're gonna clear for takeoff or the other guy's gonna land."

In announcing the April 7 tower closures, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said in a statement, "We will work with the airports and the operators to ensure the procedures are in place to maintain the high level of safety at non-towered airports."

Meantime, the flight instructors at Riverside Air Academy say the tower closure at Riverside Municipal Airport will rob flight students of vital experience.

"We want people to learn how to talk on the radio and not be afraid of air traffic control and having the tower here gives us that ability," said Dave Souliotes of Riverside Air Academy.

The FAA says the closures are a necessary result of Congress' across-the-board budget cuts -- so-called sequestration. But Close says the move has little to do with budget necessities and more to do with partisan politics.

"They're trying to tell us they don't have any discretion," Close said. "I think probably that they do have some discretion to choose what areas within their budget they could curtail expenses."

The tower closures are just the beginning. The FAA is also promising furloughs, and members of the Air Traffic Controllers Union say those will dramatically slow down air travel for everyone.


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