Hello, tower? Will the sequester make flying less safe at 149 US airports?

Automatic 'sequester' spending cuts will force the FAA to shutter 149 airport towers. So far, the American public hasn't made up its mind about whether spending cuts are good.

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    A plane heads to the runway at the Cuyahoga County Airport Friday in Highland Heights, Ohio. The Federal Aviation Administration target list of towers to close includes the Ohio State University and Bolton airports in Columbus and the Cuyahoga County Airport in suburban Cleveland.
    Tony Dejak/AP
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Flying will become a bit more seat-of-the pants for pilots who use some 149 US airports that are scheduled to have their air-traffic towers closed next month, thanks to automatic spending cuts imposed by Congress.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) sparked a debate about flying safety when it announced Friday that contracted flight controllers at 149 airstrips would not report to work starting in April as the agency adjusts to mandated across-the-board spending cuts demanded by Congress in the Budget Control Act of 2011. The "sequester" went into effect March 1 when Congress and the White House failed to come to an agreement about deficit spending.

The $85 billion in sequester cuts forces agencies to curtail their spending by up to 8 percent, which many critics say amounts to a vexing scenario that will mean longer airport lines, fewer White House tours, and cuts in military benefits. The US Department of Transportation specifically has to absorb $1 billion in cuts, with $637 million coming out of the FAA's budget.

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That's enough to cause uproar among Americans, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told Congress last month.

"Your phones are going to start ringing off the hook when these people are delayed at airports, and their flights are delayed 90 minutes, or their flights are canceled, or their air tower is closed," Mr. LaHood said.

So far, most Americans have been largely unfazed by the forced cuts, though the White House has said many of the impacts will be cumulative over time. The general consensus in Washington is that Republicans, especially, are content to let the sequester cuts remain in place, in part as proof that the sky won't fall as a result of modest agency spending cuts necessary to bring spending into line and reduce the rapidly expanding national debt.

"The American public has not yet come to a strongly shared judgment on the effects of the sequestration cuts," writes the Gallup organization, based on a mid-March poll. "More than half of Americans say they simply don't know enough to tell whether the cuts are a good thing or a bad thing for the country or for themselves…. Apparently, nothing in the information flow … has been enough – to date – to move the public's opinions about the cuts in either direction."

To be sure, the airport tower closings could help to shape public opinion, though it's far from clear in what way. While some Republican lawmakers whose rural district airports will be affected have criticized the FAA for compromising safety, some airport operators suggest that pilots are still going to be landing and taking off without too much problem.

Steve Landry, the interim director of the Gary/Chicago Airport, told the Chicago Tribune that landings and takeoffs will lose "efficiency" if the tower is closed. But pilots will still be able to use the airport by radioing other pilots and relying on towers at nearby airports for traffic information. That appears to be the consensus at the majority of the affected airports.

“Safety is our top priority, and in the course of implementing the operational changes, we may reduce the efficiency of the national airspace in order to maintain the highest safety standards," LaHood and FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said in a letter announcing the plans. "We are aware that these service reductions will adversely affect commercial, corporate and general aviation operators. We also expect that as airlines estimate the potential impacts of these furloughs, they will change their schedules and cancel flights."

Justin Johnson, the director of aviation safety at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, told the Daytona Beach News-Journal that the 2004 addition of FAA-run towers at New Smyrna Beach and Ormond Beach airports – both of which are slated to have their towers closed in April – meant that "safe operations went to safer operations. Having a tower organizes what could be chaos into safer operations."

As with other potential sequester impacts, the closing of airport towers at smaller US airports will give Americans a glimpse into how budgetary doomsaying jibes with actual real-world impacts of federal dollars and policies.

"Despite the bipartisan yelping, the sequester has turned out to be mild, at least in this early stage," writes Los Angeles Times columnist Doyle McManus. "As a result, the once-feared sequester is starting to seem like nothing more than a slightly messy $85-billion spending cut that Congress can continue to tinker with for the rest of the year."

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