Regional airports in Grand Island, Neb., and Sioux City, Iowa, could lose their air traffic control towers if Congress and the president let automatic budget cuts take effect March 1.
The proposed cuts announced Friday by the Federal Aviation Administration could also affect after-midnight operations at Omaha's Eppley Airfield.
Grand Island officials said that their airport has grown dramatically in the past four years and that losing the tower would set back that progress and hurt air safety.
“It would certainly be unfortunate at a time when our community is kind of hitting its stride with air service,” said Cindy Johnson, president of the Grand Island Area Chamber of Commerce.
The Central Nebraska Regional Airport served a record 56,000 passengers last year, up from 8,000 in 2008, an airport official said.
Allegiant Air offers twice-weekly flights from Grand Island to Phoenix and Las Vegas; American Eagle flies daily to Dallas-Fort Worth, she said.
Omaha's Eppley Tower and the Des Moines Tower are on the list of facilities where overnight shifts could be eliminated.
Central Nebraska Regional (Grand Island), Waterloo (Iowa) Tower and Dubuque (Iowa) Regional are on the list of air traffic control facilities that could be closed.
“The airport board is looking at service to Orlando, for obvious reasons, for the recreational travel, to expand on that market for us, because Phoenix and Vegas have done really well,” she said.
Prompted by the looming deadline for automatic budget cuts, known as the sequester, the FAA joined other federal agencies from defense to education in highlighting how the trims would affect operations.
The revelations are ramping up pressure on Congress and the president to strike a new budget deal.
The proposed cuts to air services were outlined Friday in a letter from U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood and FAA Administrator Michael Huerta to airlines, aircraft owners and airport operators.
The plan calls for furloughs for 47,000 FAA employees, one day per pay period through the end of the fiscal year in September.
The agency would eliminate midnight shifts in more than 60 towers across the country, including at Eppley Airfield.
And it would close more than 100 air traffic control towers with fewer than 150,000 flight operations or 10,000 commercial operations per year.
Towers could be lost at airports in Grand Island and, in Iowa, at Waterloo, Dubuque and Sioux City.
Mike Olson, executive director of the Central Nebraska Regional Airport in Grand Island, said it's vitally important to keep its tower. Cutting towers would be a catastrophe, he said.
“I find it hard to believe that they would jeopardize safety in order to cut money,” he said.
Controllers in the Grand Island tower clear aircraft to take off, land and move about the airport, he said. The controllers don't track aircraft on radar screens in the tower, but they are in contact with controllers in Minneapolis, who guide the airplanes until the airplanes get close to Grand Island and pilots contact local controllers via radio, he said.
American Eagle flies 44- to 50-seat regional aircraft from the airport. Allegiant flies 166-seat MD-80s, he said.
Grand Island has the only tower between Lincoln and Denver, he said. Losing it and other towers would put extra workload on towers in such places as Minneapolis, raising the likelihood of an accident, he said.
The federal government pays 80 percent of the Grand Island tower's operation cost, with the airport authority paying the rest, he said.
Olson said the rise in airport use has cramped the Grand Island passenger terminal, so construction will start on a new terminal next year. In 2016, plans call for extending the primary runway by 1,000 feet.
“We're by light years the fastest-growing airport in Nebraska,” he said.
Steve Coufal, executive director of the Omaha Airport Authority, said he has seen the letter but is waiting for details.
At Eppley, the majority of flight activity, mostly commercial airlines, takes place between 5:30 a.m. and midnight. After midnight, the traffic is periodic, Coufal said.
Generally, he said, the flying after midnight is general aviation — for example a pilot flying in late, a business jet or student pilots getting nighttime flying hours — or cargo operations.
“On rare occasions you could have a late flight coming in 15, 30 minutes late, with a carrier, but generally it's going to be general aviation or cargo,” he said.
He said it's hard to gauge the impact of the cuts without more details.
“Once we know a little bit more, then we'll be able to focus, again, on what do we need to do to maintain operations at this airport and to do so safely,” Coufal said.
Furloughs and facility shutdowns would start in April, according to LaHood and Huerta.
They predict that as a result of the cuts, travelers will experience delays.
Flights to major cities such as New York, Chicago and San Francisco could experience delays of up to 90 minutes during peak hours because of fewer controllers on staff, they said.
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