WASHINGTON -- The United States will close 149 air-traffic control towers run by contractors at small- and mid-sized airports beginning April 7 as a result of automatic budget cuts at government agencies.
The Federal Aviation Administration spared 24 towers on its original list of 173 subject to closing, it said in an email Friday. All towers being shut down are run by private companies, not the government as at larger facilities. Another 16 private towers will face 5 percent cuts.
"Unfortunately we are faced with a series of difficult choices that we have to make to reach the required cuts under sequestration," Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in an email.
The FAA spared the 24 facilities because airport operators convinced the agency that closing them "would have a negative impact on the national interest," according to the agency statement. The shutdowns will be phased in over four weeks.
Advocates for pilots and airports said shutting the towers will harm safety and impose economic hardship on businesses such as flight schools that rely on controllers to guide planes.
"The White House does not understand the consequences of these actions, or they do and they simply do not care," Craig Fuller, president and chief executive officer of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, a Frederick, Md.-based advocacy group, said at a town-hall meeting Thursday at DuPage Airport in West Chicago, Ill. "Either way, this approach is dangerous and should not stand."
Florida is set to lose 14 towers, the most of any state. They include facilities at Naples Municipal, Boca Raton and Ocala International airports, according to a list provided by AOPA. Texas will lose 13 and California 11.
Airports in San Carlos, Calif.; Jacksonville, Fla., and Meridian, Miss., were spared, according to the list.
Spencer Dickerson, executive director of the Alexandria, Va.-based Contract Tower Association, said it was unfair for the government to shut down more than half the 251 private towers while sparing government-run facilities. The association represents firms that run the towers.
"Controllers at contract towers perform a host of important functions, including separating aircraft, issuing safety and weather alerts, and assisting with military, emergency response, and medical flights," Dickerson said.
Planes, including airliners, can continue to fly to airports without towers. Most of the roughly 5,000 U.S. public airports don’t have towers. Instead of being guided by controllers, pilots radio each other to coordinate landings and takeoffs, according to FAA procedures.
No FAA air-traffic facilities will be shut down for at least a year, Doug Church, spokesman for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association union, said in an e-mailed statement.
The FAA’s union contract requires that controllers get at least a year’s notice before a facility is closed, Church said. The agency Feb. 22 issued a list of 49 FAA towers that were subject to closing in addition to the private towers.
The FAA’s 15,000 controllers will be forced to take one unpaid day off every two weeks starting April 21, which will aggravate delays at some of the busiest U.S. airports, including Chicago O’Hare and Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson, Administrator Michael Huerta told Congress Feb. 27.
The FAA must cut $627 million out of its $16 billion budget by the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30, Huerta said.