February 23, 2013

Budget cuts may affect air traffic night shifts

Two regional airports – in Bangor and in Manchester, N.H. – could see reduced staffing if a budget impasse forces federal regulators to trim spending.

By Kevin Miller kmiller@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Bangor International Airport and Manchester-Boston Regional Airport are among 60 airports nationwide that could lose overnight air traffic control shifts unless Congress and the White House reach a budget compromise soon, federal officials said Friday.

click image to enlarge

A KC-135 refueling tanker takes off at Bangor International Airport in 2003 as other refueling planes and transport planes sit below the airport control tower.

John Patriquin / Staff File Photo

The staffing cuts are in the Federal Aviation Administration's plan to trim $600 million from its budget if the partisan stalemate on Capitol Hill continues, triggering $85 billion in across-the-board spending cuts March 1.

While acknowledging that the potential cutbacks could affect operations, airport officials insisted that air traffic will still be monitored and flight crews will be advised during landings and takeoffs, even with the loss of a late-night shift.

"The airport will certainly remain open 24/7," said Tony Caruso, director of the Bangor International Airport. "If the Bangor tower is closed during those hours, Boston (Logan International Airport) will continue to provide coverage. And pilots are trained to operate under those procedures."

Airports without control towers are fairly common in rural areas. They rely on air traffic controllers at bigger airports.

The prospect of losing around-the-clock staffing in Bangor and Manchester concerns officials including U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who fought a similar proposal for Bangor in 2005.

"Senator Collins spoke today with FAA Administrator Michael Huerta to express her serious concerns," said Collins's spokesman Kevin Kelley. "She fears that FAA's plan could disproportionately hurt airports, like Bangor International, in small, rural states where towers are used for civilian and military operations after midnight."

Caruso could not immediately provide statistics for the number of late-night arrivals or departures in Bangor, but he said flights do "operate regularly during those hours."

In addition to commercial carriers, planes carrying military personnel pass through Bangor at all hours because Bangor is a "port of entry" with 24-hour U.S. Customs and Immigration services.

International flights that get diverted because of mechanical problems or mid-flight emergencies are often routed to Bangor.

One concern is how commercial airlines would respond to the loss of 24-hour, on-premises coverage. Some won't schedule flights into airports without around-the-clock air traffic control towers, although Caruso noted that the Portland International Jetport lacks late-night staffing and still receives flights.

"It is a valid concern and is a very big concern for us," Caruso said. "We will advocate to the FAA to continue tower coverage 24/7."

Manchester-Boston Regional Airport typically does not schedule arrivals between midnight and 6 a.m., but flights do depart during those hours, said Assistant Director Thomas Malafronte.

He said airport officials are awaiting the FAA's full assessment of how it would make the staffing cutbacks -- if they're needed -- before deciding how to proceed.

"We are confident the FAA will make the right decision," Malafronte said. "But our position is, we always prefer to have a 24-hour tower, both for safety and operational reasons."

The FAA announced the potential cutbacks in a letter it released Friday, one week before the $85 billion in spending cuts are scheduled to begin. It was the latest in a series of dire predictions from the Obama administration as it pressures congressional Republicans to delay the cuts.

More than 100 smaller airports could lose their air traffic control towers altogether, although no Maine airports are on that list. And the vast majority of the FAA's 47,000 employees would be furloughed one day per pay period through September.

(Continued on page 2)

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