FAA: 173 air traffic control towers on list of closures, two in Tampa Bay area

Budget cuts to blame

ST. PETERBURG, Fla. - The billions in U.S. spending cuts, also known as the "sequester" that went into effect March 1 could lead to the closing of 173 small airport air traffic control towers at small regional airports across U.S., two of them being in the Bay area.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) published a list of airports that could lose their traffic control facilities on April 7, however the FAA denies that this is the final confirmed list. ( See the list here:  http://www.faa.gov/news/updates/media/Facilities_Could_Be_Closed.pdf )

The potentially affected towers for the Bay area include Lakeland-Linder Airport in Lakeland and Albert Whitted Airport in St. Petersburg.

Many believe this could be a disaster, considering the change would leave pilots without any assistance. Albert Witted has previously experienced a number of crashes.

"We have a lot of traffic around here," says Pete Flynn at Albert Whitted.  "Safety, there could be some near misses.  Doesn't make sense we just invested all this money just to close it."

That money Flynn is talking about is the $3 million of federal grant money pumped into the tower's renovations just 18 months ago.  Flynn admits this new normal set to take effect next month will mean pilots will be required to remain diligent and police themselves.  There are plenty airports effectively doing that in the nation everyday on non-controlled runways, but with Albert Whitted's more than 85,000 departures and arrivals annually, its just easier said than done. 

Admiral Farragut Academy flight student Chrys Ngan, who uses Albert Whitted as his base airport, says he knows the extra set of eyes and ears in the tower are a luxury, but he appreciates having the extra help.

"If they have a tower here, it is great, because they would try to make sure that we would not mess up," says Ngan. 

Ngan moved from China just four years ago and has been flying just six months.  His flight instructor, Robert Ewing says his thoughts are in line with his student's.

"What air traffic control does is just provide traffic separation and just give you a better margin in terms of safety," says Ewing.

It also keeps pilots departing and arriving in the right air space, especially important when your runway is just seven miles across the bay from MacDill Air Force Base. 

Peter Flynn and others at the airport say St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster's attempt at an appeal to the FAA.  The deadline for that is Wednesday, March 13.  There are no promises the appeal will be considered, but controllers who provide extra safety in the skies at Albert Whitted certainly hope a favorable decision is reached.


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