Sequestration threatens airport

Air traffic control facilities at several smaller airports in Michigan could be closed if automatic budget cuts set to go into effect in a week; others in the state could lose the midnight shift.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and the Federal Aviation Administration have  outlined the potential effects of “sequestration.”  The series of across-the-board cuts that would trim $85-billion in federal spending between March 1 and Sept. 30 barring a congressional deal.

In a letter to airline and airport managers around the country, LaHood said the cutbacks will mean the elimination of midnight shifts in 30 secondary airports like El Paso, Texas and Chicago’s Midway, and the closure of traffic control towers at 100 smaller airports, including Sawyer.

If the measure is not resolved by March 1 – or soon thereafter – longer lines across the country are expected for air travelers and companies counting on moving cargo by air could expect significant delays. Flights between major cities could also be delayed by as much as 90 minutes during peak hours because of reduced staffing.

“We are aware that these service reductions will adversely affect commercial, corporate and general aviation operators,” LaHood said in a letter also signed by FAA Administrator Michael Huerta. “We also expect that as airlines estimate the potential impacts … they will change their scheduled and cancel flights.”

The Transportation Security Administration would be expected to cut staffing and put in place a seven-day furlough for TSA screeners.

President Barack Obama is pushing Republicans to accept higher tax revenues along with spending cuts to forestall sequestration; Republicans say they’ve passed measures that would stop sequestration out of the House.

LaHood and Huerta’s letter went to organizations representing airlines, pilots and others on Friday warning them to prepare for the possible effects of sequestration and a cut to FAA expenditures of some $600-million, including furloughs of one day per two-week pay period for the “vast majority” of the FAA’s employees.

The Transportation Department unveiled a list of more than 200 smaller airports across the country, including six in Michigan, that could be among 100 which would see their control towers close. Included in that list were Coleman A. Young in Detroit, W.K. Kellogg in Battle Creek, Ann Arbor Municipal and airports in Jackson, Muskegon and Sawyer International in Marquette.

Meanwhile, as many as 60 other somewhat larger airports – including Willow Run in Ypsilanti and Capital Region International Airport in Lansing – could lose midnight shifts in their control towers.

Losing the use of a control tower doesn’t necessarily mean an airport has to shut down, however. Duane Duray, airport manager at Sawyer Airport in Marquette, is quoted in the Detroit Free Press as saying Sawyer’s approximately 19,000 flights a year could continue without a tower – at least temporarily. But he said there was no denying that even at a smaller, more isolated facility like his where traffic in the air isn’t as great a tower “is another layer of safety” in the system.