Smaller air traffic control towers anticipate closure due to sequestration

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A view of the runway at the Santa Monica Airport.

The Federal Aviation Administration is deciding this week which air traffic control towers to stop funding due to the automatic federal spending cuts known as "sequestration."

Of the 238 towers that face possible closure, 23 are in California, and about half of those are in Southern California. The FAA's full list is embedded below.

The towers serve smaller airports with fewer than 150,000 takeoffs and landings per year. The airports in Fullerton, Riverside and Palmdale are in that category. Officials at those airports worry that closing the control towers could increase congestion in the skies above the Southern California region. 

In Ventura County, the towers at Oxnard and Camarillo airports are on the list of possible closures. Ventura County Director of Airports Todd McNamee says both airports operate very close to the airspace of Point Mugu in the Naval Base Ventura County installation. 

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"As aircraft are coming and going, potentially closing one or both of our towers, you lose coordination of those three sites," says McNamee.     

The tower at Oxnard is a "contract" tower, meaning it’s operated by a private contractor. It could close as early as April 7 due to sequestration.

The tower at Camarillo is staffed by FAA air traffic controllers. McNamee says it's on the list of possible closures, but that might not happen for at least another year.  

Most of the control towers facing possible closure next month are “contract” towers. Spencer Dickerson of the U.S. Contract Tower Association says closing all of the contract towers in the Los Angeles basin could have an impact on safety in a region with five major airports that serve tens of millions of air travelers each year.

“Closing those towers down will then require more communication, more work on the part of other FAA facilities that are already strained because of the significant air traffic that’s in the Los Angeles area,” Dickerson says. 

Impact on the traveling public

The FAA says in cutting its budget due to sequestration, it’s trying to have the smallest impact on on the traveling public. The agency allowed airport managers, legislators and other officials to make the case for why closing a particular contract tower would threaten the national interest. So many responses poured in that the FAA delayed its decision on contract towers. It now plans to announce it on Friday. 

The FAA could not consider the economic impact of closing a tower and laying off controllers and other staff, but both Dickerson and McNamee agree that's important.

"These are jobs lost at a time when local economies can ill afford further job loss," says Dickerson. McNamee says five people staff the control tower at the Oxnard airport, but the economic threat goes beyond their jobs.

"Many aviation businesses prefer to operate out of airports with control towers," McNamee says. "Closing Oxnard will make it difficult to bring potential business to the airport." 

Correction: In a radio broadcast, KPCC mistakenly included the El Monte air traffic control tower in a list of "contract" towers that face closure next month. The El Monte tower is staffed by the FAA. It is on the agency's list of towers that could close, but it will be considered in a different process from the "contract" towers. KPCC regrets the error.

FAA List of Small Airport Tower Closures

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