Update: Friday March 22, the FAA announced Provo and Ogden airports are among the nationwide air traffic control towers to close. Read the story here.
In response to the across-the-board federal budget cuts due to sequestration, the Federal Aviation Administration has said it will cut $600 million by closing air traffic control towers at some of the nation’s smaller airports, including two in Utah. UPR’s Matt Jensen speaks with Utah airport officials and the US Contract Tower Association to see how the closures could affect the national airspace and air safety
Air traffic control towers at two Utah airports are among the more than 200 nation wide that could close on April 7 due to sequestration.
The FAA released a list of 238 airport towers facing closure, and said a final decision is expected Friday.
Spencer Dickerson is executive director of the U.S. Contract Tower Association, the group fighting to keep the towers open, and he said the group is worried about what the impacts this action might have.
"We're very concerned about the impact of closing 173 towers including Ogden and Provo, on one day. In the history of this program, there have only been 3 towers closed in 30 years," Dickerson said.
Both Provo and Ogden towers are staffed by non-FAA controllers, who are contracted to monitor the air space around the airports. Each tower has between 5 and 7 controllers, meaning up to 1,500 controllers around the country could lose their jobs if the closures take place.
The tower association says closing so many towers on one day could impact aviation safety and reduce efficiency in the nation's air space system.
"The controllers at these towers in Ogden and Provo provide an important extra layer of safety to help pilots guide themselves in and out of these airports," Dickerson said.
The group is also concerned about the tower closures because once a tower closes, it's always a long-term battle to get it reopened.
"My personal opinion? If they close, they're done for," Dickerson said. "You can never say forever, but I think for the foreseeable future."
The tower association wants the FAA to look again at its operating budget, and look at other ways to cut costs.
"There are plenty of other parts of FAA that are non-essentials that can be cut, instead of first going after towers," Dickerson said. "FAA has a large budget, they've got to be able to find the savings which amount to about 50 million dollars for the rest of this fiscal year without cutting towers."
Steve Gleason is the airport manager at Provo Municipal Airport, home to Utah Valley University's professional pilot training program, and said the airport is very busy.
"We do 100,000 operations a year, and 65 to 70 percent of those operations are student pilots,"Gleason said.
An operation is a take-off or landing.
"We have a wide-ranging mix of aircraft, everything from commercial jets and MD-80s to private jets, to Katana training aircraft. They all travel at very different speeds and you have very different levels of pilot skills," Gleason said.
Provo is also part of the Allegiant Airlines network, and is a base for several corporate aviation operators.
"You get that many aircraft flying in the same air space without a control tower and the only thing I can compare it to, is if you took one of the busiest intersections in the state and you decided you were going to have 65 percent of the drivers on that intersection be first-time drivers, and then you took out all of the traffic signals and road signs and just hoped everyone went where they were supposed to.
"A control tower is our traffic signs and signalization. It's what keeps everybody the right distance from each other. Now we can do some things to try and keep the safety as high as possible without a control tower, but there is no question we are a much safer environment to fly in with a control tower than without," Gleason said.
The FAA tells Utah Public Radio they'll have a decision on which towers will close on Friday, meanwhile Dickerson and his team are still working to keep towers across the country working.
"We're going to continue to fight hard to keep these towers open. It's been a program that's been around for 30 years and validated by the department of transportation's inspector general. It's a great value to the tax payers, so we're going to keep fighting for them," Dickerson said.