Feds closing regional airport towers

Lakeland and St. Petersburg losing funding

LAKELAND, Fla. - Two regional airports in Tampa Bay could be forced to scale back operations, unless they can raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to replace federal cuts to their air traffic controllers.  

Lakeland Linder Regional Airport and Albert Whitted Airport in St. Petersburg are on a list of 149 small airports that are losing funding for tower controllers because of automatic budget cuts, known as sequestration, set to take effect in April.

"It doesn't mean the tower's closing.  It doesn't mean the airport's closing," said Gene Conrad, Lakeland's airport director.  "But obviously, it's not good," he said.

The cuts mean that planes flying into those airports would have to rely on their own radio systems to monitor air traffic, or get help from larger airports nearby.  Seven people are expected to be laid off at Lakeland's airport April 21.

Travelers like Marlene Baxter was disappointed to hear about the cuts.

"There goes another good thing.  They're just taking everything away from us," Baxter said.  Her husband, Carwin Baxter, blames the bickering between the president and congress.  He said they've chosen the wrong area to slash the budget.

"This is not it.  There's too much waste elsewhere," Baxter said.

Marian Graham used Lakeland Linder to fly in from Canada.  Now she worries that the tower closing will mean flying to a different airport.  

"This was great because we're only five miles up the road here," Graham said.  Coming in to Polk County from Tampa or Orlando could take an hour-and-a-half, she said.

Lakeland's airport announced that the popular Sun N' Fun fly-in will go on as scheduled, and the federal government will provide air traffic controllers during the event.  Thousands of planes are expected annually, but organizers are upset that money raised from the festival will be used to help pay for the tower controllers.

The issue of safety in the nation's air traffic network has been raised, as there will be fewer people monitoring plane routes.  Conrad likened it to a four-way intersection when the traffic lights are out.

"They're going to be some fender benders," Conrad said.   "I'm not saying those things are necessarily going to happen, but that's kind of what we're talking about," he said.

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