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'Unprecedented': Budget Cuts Could Hit Some Airport Towers

A statue of golf legend Arnold Palmer stands outside Arnold Palmer Regional Airport in Latrobe, Pa.
Brian Naylor
A statue of golf legend Arnold Palmer stands outside Arnold Palmer Regional Airport in Latrobe, Pa.

Control towers at many small and medium-sized airports around the country are set to shut down next month because of the across-the-board federal budget cuts. The towers have been operated under contract to the Federal Aviation Administration.

One of the airports affected is in Latrobe, Pa., southeast of Pittsburgh — the Arnold Palmer Regional Airport, named after the golf great who grew up a well-placed drive from the runway. A statue of Palmer watches over the small terminal.

The airport's runway is long enough to handle the Airbus and Boeing jets that Spirit Airlines uses in its daily flights to Florida and other points south. The airport is also a favorite of private pilots, who sometimes fly in for lunch, says airport manager Gabe Monzo.

"They call it the $100 hamburger," he says of the pilots who fly in on the weekends and visit the airport's restaurant. He says the airport is "a nice operation. It's a busy operation. ... It's a good thing to have in the region."

Truth be told, it's not always that busy. Spirit's low-fare flights to Florida are popular, but typically there are only a couple a day.

The FAA says it needs to cut $600 million from its budget for the rest of the fiscal year because of sequestration. Its first target is those airports with fewer than 10,000 commercial takeoffs and landings a year, like Arnold Palmer Regional.

Five controllers work in the tower here — employees of a private company under contract to the FAA. It's these contract towers the FAA intends to close, most on April 7. It plans to close a total of 189 by the end of the fiscal year.

Spencer Dickerson, executive director of the U.S. Contract Tower Association, says as many as 1,500 controllers will be laid off.

"We're very concerned about the efficiency and safety of that situation, particularly when you shut down 173 towers in a single day," he says. "This is unprecedented. We're very concerned about how this is going to play out, and we're going to do everything we can to keep these towers open for the benefit of the traveling public."

Spirit Airlines says it will continue its flights into and out of Arnold Palmer Regional when the tower closes, with help from other controller centers in the region.

Thomas Brun, an advertising consultant with a small office at the airport who is an experienced pilot as well, says it's much safer flying into controlled airspace — especially when large commercial jets are also operating there.

"If I'm flying from the west and the airline is coming from the southeast, I have to understand exactly where he is and watch for that plane," Brun says. "It's a much different environment in which to fly than when you have a control tower who's in charge."

Without a controller on duty, Brun says, much more responsibility falls on the pilot to announce his presence and to be diligent.

"In uncontrolled airports, I've had a couple of incidents where, you know, I shuddered a bit," he says. "Every now and then, somebody'll give the wrong direction — 'I'm coming from the west' when he meant the east — so ... it's different. It's better to have a tower."

Monzo, the airport manager, says Arnold Palmer Regional has a $140 million a year impact on the community. He says the airport will operate as near to normal as possible if its tower closes next month, following the FAA's guidelines.

"They call the shots, and hopefully down the road they settle their differences," he says, "but it's a situation where we'll deal with it accordingly."

There might be a reprieve for Arnold Palmer Regional and other small to midsize airports in Congress in coming weeks. One senator has proposed an amendment to move money around within the FAA's budget, so that there would be funds to keep the contract towers open.

The proposal's fate, like those of the control towers, remains up in the air.

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Corrected: March 24, 2013 at 10:00 PM MDT
In the audio version of this story, we give an incorrect name for the executive director of the U.S. Contract Tower Association. He is Spencer Dickerson, not Spencer Dickinson.
Brian Naylor
NPR News' Brian Naylor is a correspondent on the Washington Desk. In this role, he covers politics and federal agencies.