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Sequester Could Close Five Regional Air Traffic Control Towers

By NICOLE MACON
Capital News Service

WASHINGTON – Air traffic control towers at Maryland’s five regional airports could shut down on April 1 as the Department of Transportation plans ways to cut its budget should the sequester occur, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said Friday.

The news left Maryland officials frustrated because without operating towers, commercial, military and general aviation air traffic could be delayed or cancelled.

Airports in Maryland that could be hit by the cuts are Easton Municipal Airport, Frederick Municipal Airport, Hagerstown Regional Airport, Martin State Airport and Salisbury-Ocean City: Wicomico Regional Airport. More than 100 air traffic control towers around the nation at airports with fewer than 150,000 flight operations or 10,000 commercial flights per year could be affected, according to LaHood’s statement.

Frederick Municipal Airport just installed its air traffic control tower last May, but its closure will still have a major impact on flights using this airport. It is the second-busiest in Maryland, with 130,000 annual flights, despite a lack of scheduled service.

The air traffic control tower is a “critical component for us out here,” Airport Manager Kevin Daugherty said. “We fought tooth and nail to get the tower.”

Lack of an operating tower could hurt Maryland businesses, according to Daugherty. “There’s a lot of commercial aircraft that won’t fly into a non-towered field.”

Air traffic controllers are important because they “provide an extra set of eyes in a complicated, congested airspace,” Maryland Aviation Administration spokesman Jonathan Dean said. MAA operates the towers at Martin State Airport.

Without air traffic controllers, pilots would have to announce their positions and intentions to other pilots.

The sequester is a series of automatic budget cuts that would go into effect March 1. The Department of Transportation will need to cut $600 million from its budget for the remainder of the fiscal year to comply with the sequester, should it occur. Congress and the Obama administration are in discussions to try to stave off the cuts.

Frederick Municipal Airport, Martin State Airport and Salisbury-Ocean City: Wicomico Regional Airport will remain open should the towers shut down due to sequestration. CNS was unable to reach Easton Municipal Airport and Hagerstown Regional Airport for comment.

In a press briefing, LaHood said he hoped that announcing the cuts will “wake up members of the Congress on the Republican side,” to offer a proposal that would prevent sequestration.

Maryland Rep. John Delaney, D-Potomac, called the possible closure of the towers “very concerning.” Both the Frederick and Hagerstown airports are in his congressional district.

“Because we failed to take the necessary steps to deal with our deficit in a balanced way…we find ourselves facing a mini-doomsday machine in the sequester,” Delaney said.

The Easton and Salisbury airports are in Congressional District 1, represented by Andy Harris, R-Cockeysville.

“Senate Democrats and President Obama have yet to propose a plan (to prevent sequestration),” Harris said in a statement. “Now, they are blaming Republicans instead of upholding their end of the deal — to find a responsible way to replace the sequester.”

Harris was recently appointed to the House Appropriations Committee, which makes budget decisions for the government.

“Sequester will cripple air transportation, causing ripple effects across the economy and costing us jobs we can’t afford to lose,” Sen. Barbara Mikulski said in a statement. “These are real impacts in real communities with real consequences.” Mikulski heads the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Robert Bryant, spokesman for Salisbury-Ocean City: Wicomico Regional Airport, is frustrated that Congress has yet to figure out a plan to prevent the sequester and cuts to the airline industry: “Let’s correct this budget mess so this country will continue to move forward.”

Capital News Service reporter Jeremy Barr contributed to this report.