'Sequester' may pull air traffic controllers from Lakeland, impacting airport and annual Sun 'N Fun

Sun 'N Fun scrambling to replace controllers

LAKELAND, Fla. - Air traffic control towers that help keep the skies safe around small airports like Lakeland's, face an uncertain future.

The Department of Transportation recently announced it will close towers at small airports as part of the 80-billion dollars federal spending cuts, known as the sequester.

The spending cuts are set to go into effect on Friday.

"At the end of the day, there's a reason we have a tower," said Gene Conrad, Director of Lakeland Linder Regional Airport.

Last year, the airport had more than 82,000 take offs and landings, but that amount of traffic may not be enough to keep its tower open.

On Friday, Conrad received a letter from DOT officials, saying the agency planned to close 100 towers that are contracted through the Federal Aviation Administration.

There's roughly 250 contracted towers at small airports around the country, including Lakeland's.

"You're injecting risk there because everybody is operating in a certain manner and now all of a sudden it's going to change," he said. "So that's never good."

Pilots can still take off and land without an air traffic control tower, but it is more challenging.  It's similar to driving through an intersection when the traffic light is out.

"You can do it, and you can do it with stop signs, but it's not the best way to do it," Conrad said.

Perhaps the bigger issue is with the annual Sun 'N Fun Fly-in. The air show is less than 40 days away, and organizers just found out the FAA may not be able to provide 50 air traffic controllers like usual.

"Poor planning on somebody else's part, caused an emergency reaction on ours," said John Leenhouts, President and CEO of Sun 'N Fun. "So we're going to do exactly that, we're going to go into an emergency state."

For the last week, Leenhouts and his team have been calling retired controllers in the area, asking them to volunteer during the event.

The show brings in as many as 11,000p lanes to Lakeland, and someone needs to direct traffic.

"We literally have four airplanes landing concurrently at two, side-by-side runways at different distances all day long," Leenhouts said.

Despite the potential setback, he insists the show will go on.

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