Automatic cuts wouldn't affect airports - at least at first

Frontier Airlines flies to five cities from Trenton-Mercer Airport, which could lose its control tower due to sequestration. This could work on sunny days, officials say, but not in bad weather.
Frontier Airlines flies to five cities from Trenton-Mercer Airport, which could lose its control tower due to sequestration. This could work on sunny days, officials say, but not in bad weather. (APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: February 28, 2013

Passengers likely won't notice disruptions or delays in air travel for at least a month, even if automatic spending cuts take place Friday. But things could eventually get dicey.

Air traffic controllers and furloughed Federal Aviation Administration employees would get a 30-day notice, under union rules, before any furloughs would become effective.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has said the FAA is considering furloughing the vast majority of its 47,000 employees for one or two days per two-week pay period, closing more than 100 air traffic control facilities and eliminating the overnight shift in more than 60 small airports.

Furloughs and facility shutdowns would begin in April.

"Right now, the federal agencies are telling us they don't know what impacts this may have for us locally," Philadelphia International Airport spokeswoman Victoria Lupica said.

Administration officials have warned of slowdowns at security checkpoints, but the Transportation Security Administration declined to comment, and Department of Homeland Security officials did not respond to requests for comment.

Northeast Philadelphia Airport, which is owned by the city but has no commercial flights, is on the FAA list for possible closure of its traffic control tower.

The tower is already not staffed from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m., and planes take off and land overnight on their own.

If the Northeast airport tower were to close temporarily, aircraft could take off and land without controllers, Lupica said.

Overnight controller shifts could be eliminated at the Atlantic City, Allentown, West Mifflin, Wilkes-Barre, and Harrisburg airports. Control towers might be closed in New Castle, Del.; Essex County and Trenton; and in Pennsylvania at the Capital City, Williamsport, Latrobe, Lancaster, and Reading airports, the FAA said.

In the summer of 2011, the FAA shut down for two weeks because a funding reauthorization didn't come through. FAA employees were furloughed, but not a single flight was canceled as a result, an airline-industry official said.

A group of congressional Republicans, including Rep. Bill Shuster of Pennsylvania, chairman of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, in a statement accused the Obama administration of creating alarm: "Before jumping to the conclusion that furloughs must be implemented, the administration and the agency need to sharpen their pencils and consider all the options."

Trenton-Mercer Airport, where Frontier Airlines now flies to five cities, is facing possible closure of its traffic control tower.

"Frontier can take off and land on a clear, sunny day without an air traffic controller," said Mercer County Executive Brian Hughes. "But if it's foggy, rainy, or cloudy, or late at night, they prefer not to."

Without air traffic controllers, "it would be a challenge," Frontier spokeswoman Kate O'Malley said. "It definitely changes things. We could still land there, but as far as having bad weather, there is more potential to have to divert if there are not air traffic controllers there."

Atlantic City International Airport could lose traffic control staff after midnight, the FAA said. The airport does not anticipate disruption because no passenger flights depart after midnight, and the last arriving flight is 11:45 p.m., spokesman Kevin Rehmann said.

The Air Line Pilots Association warned Tuesday that across-the-board budget cuts in the so-called sequestration raised the specter of thousands of eliminated, canceled, or delayed flights; reduced passenger service at security and customs checkpoints; air traffic control facility closings; and furloughs, reduced hours, or job eliminations for tens of thousands of U.S. airline industry workers.


Contact Linda Loyd

at 215-854-2831 or lloyd@phillynews.com.

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