Just days after President Barack Obama signed a bill regarding sequestration, managers of several regional airports are putting fears to rest that their airports may be casualties of looming across-the-board spending cuts.
Obama last Tuesday officially signed the Sequestration Transparency Act, which requires his administration to detail just how painful budget cuts to most federal agencies will be. Obama had until last Wednesday to sign the bill, which passed the Senate by unanimous consent and cleared the House in a 414-2 vote.
With the bill signed, the Obama administration now has 30 days to lay out specifics about the $1.2 trillion sequestration that will take place in January 2013 if Congress is unable to agree on another deficit-reduction plan before the end of the year.
As part of that process, directors of many federal agencies are being asked to develop and submit a plan to Congress detailing exactly how they would deal with such cuts. One of those agencies is the Federal Aviation Administration.
According to a new analysis released by the Center for American Progress (CAP), a Washington, D.C. think tank, the FAA could be looking at $1.35 billion in automatic budget cuts through the sequestration plan. Analysts with CAP predict as many as 106 U.S. airports could lose FAA-funded air traffic control services as a result of the cuts, a move the center says would essentially close those airports.
Not too worried
Mike Daigle, executive director of the St. Joseph County Airport Authority, which oversees the South Bend Regional Airport, isn’t putting much stock in the CAP’s findings. The airport, which serves approximately 600,000 passengers a year, is one of the airports slated to lose air traffic control services next year should the CAP’s predictions prove accurate. Other nearby airports facing similar cuts include the Fort Wayne International Airport and Michigan’s Kalamazoo-Battle Creek International Airport.
“I have no definitive information one way or the other since this is pretty much all conjecture right now, but I have to believe that the FAA air traffic control function will continue across the country,” Daigle said from his office Thursday afternoon. “Air traffic control is a vital function of the FAA and federal government, and I think it would continue whether or not there would be a small modification or tweaking of cost to save some dollars. But I think in large measure the air traffic control service would continue.”
Scott Hinderman, executive director of the Fort Wayne-Allen County Airport Authority, which oversees the Fort Wayne International Airport, had a similar opinion.
“I think what they’re doing is putting together some worst-case scenarios for what would happen if funding went away, and one of them would be to cut funding to personnel at control towers,” Hinderman said, noting that the targeted airports appear to be those that serve fewer than 790,000 passengers a year. “If they would do that, air traffic control personnel would be furloughed.”
Even with the loss of air traffic control capabilities, Hinderman said he is confident that few if any of the listed airports would actually have to close due to the cuts.
“I can’t imagine why an airport would shut down,” Hinderman said. “The FAA doesn’t control the airport. Our airport would not be shut down, though our air traffic control towers may be shut down. The fact is, there are more uncontrolled airports in our country than controlled. The Goshen airport is uncontrolled, for example. In fact, the South Bend airport’s tower shut’s down at night.”
A bad idea
However, like Daigle, Hinderman was quick to note his opinion that cutting the air traffic control abilities at so many airports would be a very bad idea, particularly when it comes to safety.
“We would lose a level of safety and an expected service level that the aviation system in our country has enjoyed for a long time,” Hinderman said. “I would be surprised if Congress would allow that level of safety to be lost within our aviation system.”
Over at the Goshen Air Center, airport manager Randy Sharkey also seemed skeptical of the CAP’s doomsday predictions regarding so many U.S. regional airports.
“I would be shocked if the cuts are that extreme where we’d lose every traffic controller at those airports,” Sharkey said. “It’s really a tough call to make. If the FAA is saying we are no longer going to support these FAA federally funded towers, that is certainly an issue. But again, I was of the understanding that there would be cuts made across the board, but I didn’t understand that it could be to the point of completely cutting the service.”
Regardless of the eventual decision by the FAA, Sharkey said business should continue as usual at the Goshen airport due to the fact that the Goshen Air Center is uncontrolled and does not have air traffic controllers on staff. Therefore it would be unaffected by any such cuts.
Even so, Sharkey agreed with both Daigle and Hinderman that the mass airport closings predicted by the analysts at CAP will most likely never come to pass.
“I would find it highly unlikely that every airport that serves less than 800,000 people would have to close,” Sharkey said. “I just don’t see that happening.”