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Tacoma Narrows Airport control tower may close if sequester cuts implemented

Post by John Gillie / The News Tribune on March 1, 2013 at 3:31 pm |
March 1, 2013 3:33 pm

Tacoma Narrows Airport near Gig Harbor and Olympia Regional Airport are among 238 U.S. airports whose control towers may close if mandatory budget cuts are implemented by the federal government.

Those two airports are among eight Washington state airports whose air traffic control facilities could be affected.

Those closures could take place in about a month if Congress is unable to agree on specific spending cuts and revenue increases to cut the deficit.

At Tacoma Narrows Airport, operations manager Jay Simons said he’s heard nothing specific about when the tower there could close down. It was still in operation Friday.

“We’ve just heard rumors,” he said.  Like the towers in many medium and smaller airports, Tacoma Narrows’ tower is operated under a private FAA contract with an outside firm.

Meanwhile, at Sea-Tac Airport, which because of its huge volume of passenger and freight traffic is not scheduled for a tower closure, no signs of sequester-caused cutbacks were yet visible Friday, said Sea-Tac spokesman Perrry Cooper.

“All of the individual federal agencies have their own plans,” he said.

Sea-Tac is likely to be affected by cutbacks in staffing for the Transportation Security Administration, which screens passengers and baggage and for customs and border protection officers who check people and goods entering the U.S. from foreign countries.

The FAA said that in addition to closing towers, it is likely to implement furloughs among its own employees of at least one day per pay period.  Locally that could affect the number of personnel available to handle air traffic control at the Sea-Tac control tower and at the regional air traffic center in Auburn.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood those furloughs could result in delays at major airports of up to 90 minutes.

Cooper said traffic is seasonally low at Sea-Tac now with about 70,000 passengers a day using the airport compared with an average of more than 80,000 and more than 100,000 on peak summer travel days.

“If there is such a thing as a good time to have a cutback, now is the time,” said Cooper.

Other state airports that could be affected by the spending cuts  include two  served by commercial flights, Walla Walla Regional Airport and Yakima’s McAllister Field.

And two other airports that could lose their tower are major Boeing production and testing sites.  Everett’s Paine Field is where Boeing builds most of its twin-aisle airliners.  And Renton Municipal Airport is the production site for final assembly for Boeing’s popular 737.

Another Washington airport that could see its tower closed, Moses Lake’s Grant County International Airport, is a testing and training site for Boeing, the Air Force and the Navy because of its sunny weather and long runways, the longest of which is some 13,000 feet.

Spokane’s Felt’s Field, once the city’s principal air carrier airport and now a general aviation airport largely used by private aircraft, could also see its tower shut down.

The FAA said it needs to cut its spending by $600 million by the end of fiscal year Oct. 1.

Republicans have criticized the FAA for proposing to cut air traffic services instead of cutting back on travel, consultants and other services they say are less essential.

Less busy airports can and do operate without control towers, but once airports reach certain volumes,  keeping traffic separated without a control tower become more difficult and risky.

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