Sequester could shut down Waterloo, Dubuque, Sioux City air traffic control (corrected)

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood warned yesterday that air traffic control across the country may be severely disrupted if the “sequester” goes into effect. Budget cuts may prompt the Federal Aviation Administration to shut down air traffic control towers at three Iowa airports as early as April.

CORRECTION: Closing the air traffic control towers would not necessarily shut down all traffic at the affected airports. On the other hand, “many corporations won’t fly into airports that don’t have an active tower.”

LaHood was the star of yesterday’s White House briefing for journalists.

LaHood said the sequestration cuts, part of the 2011 Budget Control Act, would result in furloughs for the FAA’s nearly 47,000 employees, including air traffic controllers.  […]

“At [the Department of Transportation], we will need to cut nearly $1 billion, which will affect dozens of our programs,” he continued.

“Over $600 million of these cuts will need to come from the Federal Aviation Administration, the agency that controls and manages our nation’s skies. As a result of these cuts, the vast majority of FAA’s nearly 47,000 employees will be furloughed for approximately one day per pay period until the end of the fiscal year and, in some cases, it could be as many as two days.”

LaHood said the FAA has begun preparing airlines and unions about the possibility of furloughs for FAA workers. But he said the effects of the cutbacks would be felt most by airline passengers.

LaHood said members of Congress would likely receive complaints from frustrated passengers who are dealing with flight delays.

Lahood was a longtime Republican member of the U.S. House representing an Illinois district. I doubt he has any pull with current House Republican leaders or backbenchers, but if he is correct about FAA furloughs being “very painful for the flying public,” members of Congress will hear about it.

Any Iowans who travel by airplane may be affected by the FAA cuts, but especially those who rely on three of our state’s airports. Here is the FAA press release of February 22:

February 22- To prepare for the possibility of a budget sequestration on March 1, 2013, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is making plans to reduce its expenditures by approximately $600 million for the remainder of Fiscal Year 2013.

Among the changes we are considering are furloughing the vast majority of our 47,000 employees for approximately one day per pay period; closing over 100 air traffic control facilities; eliminating the overnight shift at over 60 facilities; and reducing preventive maintenance and support for all air traffic control equipment. All of these changes will be finalized as to scope and details through collaborative discussions with our users and our unions.

We will begin furloughs and start facility shut-downs in April. You can read more about this process in this letter from Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and FAA Administrator Michael Huerta (PDF).

This pdf document lists all of the air traffic control facilities around the country that may be closed. Waterloo Tower, Dubuque Regional, and Sioux Gateway are near the bottom of page 2. No Iowa airport would be affected by eliminating overnight shifts for air traffic controllers.

Iowa’s first Congressional district contains both Waterloo and Dubuque. Representative Bruce Braley released this statement on February 22 (emphasis in original).

Washington, D.C. – Rep. Bruce Braley (IA-01) today released the following statement after the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced that the Waterloo, Dubuque, and Sioux City airport control towers could be closed as part of the agency’s efforts to cut $600 million from its fiscal year 2013 budget if Congress fails to avert so-called “sequestration” before next Friday, March 1st.

“This is just the latest example of the wide-ranging consequences of Congress failing to act to prevent sequestration.  In this case, it’s not only a negative economic impact but an impact on public safety.  It shows how reckless and irresponsible sequestration is, which is why I voted against it in the first place.  Congress needs to put aside its ideological differences and work together to avert these dangerous cuts immediately.”

Earlier today, the FAA announced it could furlough tens of thousands of employees, eliminate overnight shifts at large airport control towers, and close control towers at smaller airports altogether if so-called “sequestration” is not avoided.  More information on the FAA’s announcement can be found on their website,…

Sioux City is part of the fourth Congressional district. I will update this post if I see any comment from Representative Steve King or from other Iowa elected officials.

I would not be surprised to see Congress approve legislation this week to stave off the “sequester” cuts for another month or two.

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  • Technical stuff

    I’m not writing any kind of commentary on the politics of sequestration but only a technical commentary about operating airports without control towers.

    There was a once-upon-a-time time that many of our mid-sized to larger airports operated without control towers. Small private single-engine airplanes safely shared the traffic patterns with the likes of Ozark Airlines and Braniff even up into the era of their jet service.

    Operating procedures and rules were in place and expectedly understood by all pilots, for safe operations into and out of airports such as those you mention which did not have any control tower. I’d imagine modern versions of such procedures are still in place.

    To make this somewhat local, I very specifically remember using Burlington’s airport in 1966 with no control tower and taking off with an Ozark departing immediately before me and a second Ozark landing behind me. That day there were more than a few corporate jets on the ramp including a couple Learjets (there were others but that type is what came immediately to mind).

    Is it a step backwards? Of course, but it’s not the end of the safe world as we know it.

    Again, not a political comment, just a technical one.

    • interesting

      I had no idea.

    • I just remembered

      That same day at Burlington there were two USAF C-124s parked way out in the military munitions arsenal area of the airport I suppose loading bombs or artillery shells. A C-124 was a pretty large heavy lifter military cargo plane.

      So even without a tower the airport daily normal operations included heavy military transport, scheduled airlines service, corporate jet transport, and small private aviation all safely integrated.

  • Tower

    A few years ago, a Comair air flight departing Lexington Ky  (smaller airport) started down the wrong runway which was too short and crashed, killing everyone but the co pilot. There was a manned tower at the time of the crash, so towers are no guarantee.

  • False headline.

    Closing the towers would not close the airports.  There are plenty of commercial airports that do not have local control towers; they are controlled by other FAA centers.

    The risk of any of these airports closing due to sequester is zero; as far as I can tell this claim originates right here, with you, and is simply a misunderstanding.

    • corrected

      It’s not clear whether all airlines and private companies would continue to service those airports in the absence of air traffic control towers, however.

      • Yeah, they would.

        I worked in the airline industry for years.  Mason City is one example – they haven’t had a control tower for a long time, but they still have commercial air service and plenty of private aviation.

        • don't know about specific companies

          operating in Iowa, but this guy thinks the closures will affect air travel in Illinois.

          Skip Goss, a 25-year pilot and president of Skill Aviation, a FAA-certificated flight school that operates out of Waukegan, […] said many corporations won’t fly into airports that don’t have an active tower. Waukegan and DuPage [Illinois] have a lot of corporate travel and could lose money in fuel receipts and other services.