Citing federal budget cuts, the Federal Aviation Administration announced Friday it will close 149 air traffic control towers at small airports around the country, including Yakima.
Horizon Air’s three daily commercial flights into Yakima will continue, although it will have to coordinate landings and takeoffs with other pilots, something it already does for its late-evening flight when the Yakima tower is closed, interim airport manager Rob Peterson said.
Minor delays are possible, but pilots are trained to coordinate with other pilots without ground help, he said.
Peterson said the Yakima airport has several weeks to phase out operations at the tower.
But he is looking into the possibility of the airport funding operations itself to keep the tower open, an option available for all airports affected by the closures, which will start early next month.
Peterson said he is collecting information on costs and plans to bring a proposal before the city of Yakima, the airport’s owner.
Meanwhile, the airport has met with stakeholders to come up with procedures should the tower close for good.
“Safety is the No. 1 priority,” he said.
The FAA announced that four other air traffic control towers in the state will be closed as part of the federal sequester. Those towers are at the Olympia Regional Airport, Felts Field in Spokane, Tacoma Narrows Airport and the Renton Municipal Airport.
The closures have raised concerns since a preliminary list of facilities was released a month ago. Those worries include the impact on safety and the potential financial effect on communities that rely on airports as key economic engines for attracting businesses and tourists.
“We will work with the airports and the operators to ensure the procedures are in place to maintain the high level of nontowered airports,” FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said in a statement.
The FAA is being forced to trim $637 million for the rest of the fiscal year that ends Sept. 30. The agency said it had no choice but to subject most of its 47,000 employees, including tower controllers, to periodic furloughs and to close air traffic facilities at small airports with lighter traffic. The changes are part of the across-the-board spending cuts known as sequestration, which went into effect March 1.
All of the airports targeted for tower shutdowns have fewer than 150,000 total flight operations per year. Of those, fewer than 10,000 are commercial flights by passenger airlines.
Airport directors, pilots and others in the aviation sector have argued that stripping away an extra layer of safety during the most critical stages of flight will elevate risks and at the very least slow years of progress in making the U.S. aviation network the safest in the world.
Mark Hanna, director of the Abraham Lincoln Capital Airport in Springfield, Ill., says without ground controllers as backup, the risk to operate “goes up exponentially,” especially at airports like his, which have such a broad mix of aircraft types: everything from privately operated Piper Cubs to the larger passenger planes of United and American airlines.
That an aviation sector as sensitive as air traffic control could become subject to political brinkmanship in Washington, D.C., was especially frustrating, he said.
Hoping to escape the final cut, he and other airport directors were left to argue with the FAA about whether the closure of their facilities would adversely affect what the agency described in a letter as the “national interest.”