Sequester could close airport tower Pilots would land and take off without air traffic controllers
BY KAREN SHUEY, Staff Writer
The sequester will not drive Lancaster Airport out of business.
Its air traffic control tower, however, is a different story.
The control tower could go dark as soon as April 7. But that doesn't mean the airport will close, airport director David Eberly said.
This week, Lancaster Airport appeared on a list of 173 airports across the country that will lose their towers and the jobs they offer because members of Congress could not reach an agreement last week.
Not having a staffed tower, though, means pilots rely on direct communication with each other to avoid collisions during takeoff and landing. No one will watch the airspace around the airport for them.
Eberly said most passengers won't notice any changes, but the loss of the seven air-traffic controllers creates a dangerous situation for pilots.
"Without controllers, it's really opening the airport up to possible disaster," he said.
The U.S. Department of Transportation said it must make more than $1 billion in cuts because of sequestration, with about $600 million of that coming out of the Federal Aviation Administration budget.
U.S. Rep. Joe Pitts, who represents most of Lancaster County, said the FAA could absorb all the sequestration cuts by imposing a hiring freeze, using savings from the first quarter of fiscal year 2013 and reducing non-personnel costs by 7 percent. None of these actions would require towers to be closed.
"I realize that a reduced federal budget means that some local services will be cut, but there is little need to cut these towers that protect lives and livelihoods," Pitts said in a written statement. "The president needs to get priorities straight."
The Lancaster Airport operates as an uncontrolled airport outside the tower's hours of 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. each day, but during the day relies on controllers to help coordinate landings and takeoffs.
"Anyone with a pilot's license knows how to fly in and out of an uncontrolled airport, but on a busy day it will get complicated," Eberly said. "On a sunny day during the summer, we can have as many as 40 to 60 landings and takeoffs in an hour."
The Lancaster airport sees about 90,000 aircraft flying in and out annually. The FAA cuts will shutter only towers at airports that handle 150,000 operations or less.
That means Harrisburg International Tower at the Harrisburg International Airport is safe -- for now.
Airport spokesman Scott Miller said business will continue as usual.
"We don't know much officially, but at this point we think our staffing levels will stay the same," Miller said.
And they might actually see more traffic when Capital City Airport's air traffic control facility closes.
The small airport in New Cumberland would likely divert some of its business to Harrisburg International Airport's tower. Both airports are operated by Susquehanna Area Regional Airport Authority.
Eberly said he believes there is a chance the towers at Capital City and Lancaster may not have to close.
"Hopefully, our congressional leaders can get a deal together to make the cuts somewhere else, in areas that won't jeopardize safety," he said.