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Smaller US airports prepare to make do without tower

An air traffic controlman uses binoculars from the tower at the Wicomico Regional Airport on March 21, 2013
An air traffic controlman uses binoculars from the tower at The Salisbury-Ocean City: Wicomico Regional Airport in Salisbury, Maryland, on March 21, 2013. The small airport in this town near Maryland's Atlantic coast is among 149 about to lose its control

The small airport in this town near Maryland's Atlantic coast is among 149 about to lose its control tower, but local officials are confident flights can go on safely without it.

The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) says the closures will help it meet a $637 million budget reduction mandated after President Barack Obama and Congress failed to agree on how to slash the US deficit.

"We heard from communities across the country about the importance of their towers and these were very tough decisions," Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a statement.

"Unfortunately, we are faced with a series of difficult choices that we have to make to reach the required cuts under sequestration."

One of the airports losing its control tower is Salisbury-Ocean City Wicomico Regional Airport, which handles an average of 145 takeoffs and landings a day by commuter flights, military aircraft and private planes.

In 1999, the local authority invested $640,000 on the tower at the dual-runaway airport that serves Ocean City, a Mid-Atlantic seaside resort town.

The airport will remain open, as pilots can come and go by self-announcing their intentions between each other on common radio frequencies -- standard procedure at small airports that never had towers.

But with its mix of fast and slow traffic, the tower at Salisbury represented an important margin of safety to prevent not only mid-air collisions, but also mishaps on the tarmac.

"Our opinion is that the tower creates an environment which is certainly more safe than having an environment without the control tower," airport manager Robert Bryant told AFP.

"But then again, the burden of ensuring that the environment is safe suddenly becomes the responsibility of the pilots."

Piedmont Airlines, a regional unit of US Airways, intends to keep serving the airport "as long as they can sell airline tickets and Salisbury remains a profitable destination for them," Bryant said.

The main runway at The Salisbury-Ocean City: Wicomico Regional Airport in Salisbury, Maryland, on March 21, 2013
The main runway at The Salisbury-Ocean City: Wicomico Regional Airport in Salisbury, Maryland, on March 21, 2013.

The airports losing their control towers all have one thing in common -- the towers are manned by personnel employed by private contractors for the FAA, rather than for the federal agency itself.

Many are served by commuter airlines that ferry travelers to bigger airline hubs for onward long-distance journeys.

In total, the United States has 515 airports with control towers -- 264 operated by the FAA and 251 by contractors. Forty-nine of the former face closure later this year, subject to negotiations with labor unions.

"In smaller airports, where there are just a couple of Cessnas a day, they can get away with not having a tower," said one Salisbury controller, referring popular light aircraft.

"When you have passengers, military, fast traffic, you really need a tower, an extra set of eyes," he added, declining to provide his full name.

The inability of Obama and Congress to agree on deficit reduction measures triggered the so-called "sequester," which requires the US government to slice $85 billion from its spending over the seven months that began in March.

The FAA and commercial airlines have previously warned that the tower closures, which begin on April 7, could slow air traffic around the United States, especially during the busy summer season.

By shutting down control towers, the FAA is compromising the safety of American skies, said Craig Fuller, president of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, which represents non-commercial and non-military flyers.

But he added: "Despite these cuts, pilots in the United States are highly-trained and extremely conscientious... They are well-accustomed to flying at (non-tower) facilities and will proceed accordingly."

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