FORT MYERS, Fla. - There is one week to go until massive budget cuts hit the Federal Government unless Congress and the White House make a deal. The cuts will hit the Pentagon and hundreds of thousands of government workers could face furloughs.
But, the focus Friday was on travel. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said flights could be delayed up to 90 minutes in big cities like New York during peak hours. Part of the reason is, 47,000 Federal Aviation employees who staff the airport towers would see reduced hours. That has a ripple effect in Southwest Florida.
Page Field in Fort Myers, Punta Gorda Airport and Naples Municipal Airport are 3 out of more than 200 airports nationwide that stand to lose their air traffic control towers come April 1st. They can still operate without towers. But, pilots who depend on that communication worry a cut to the budget is a cut to safety.
Paragon Flight Training Chief Instructor Jeffrey Wolf estimates Paragon accounted for more than half the landings at Page Field last year. "There's a reason a control tower was put here in the first place, and it is because it is so busy and to keep it under control," Wolf said. "Why would to take that away?"
"It depends on what value you put on human life," pilot Richard Riviezzo said. "Right now, it's an issue between the Democrats and the Republicans."
Both Wolf and Riviezzo say cutting air traffic control at an airport as busy as Page Field is a bad idea.
The problem is, the U.S. Department of Transportation needs to cut a billion dollars from its budget. They say $600 million needs to come from the Federal Aviation Administration. As part of that plan, more than 100 air traffic control towers at airports with fewer than 150,000 flights per year could close. That includes towers at Page Field, Naples Municipal Airport and Punta Gorda Airport, which built a brand new, $4 million air traffic control tower less than 2 years ago.
"More than ninety percent of all the airports in country are nontowered airports," Naples Airport Authority Executive Director Ted Soliday said. "Yes, you can fly without an air traffic tower, however, most of the larger aircraft, the business aircraft, prefer that for their insurance purposes and safety purposes."
Soliday is confident that with their heavy traffic, they'll keep their tower open. Still, he has a backup plan. "We will not close our tower," Soliday said. "We will pay for ourselves, I suspect, if we have to."
Officials from Page Field plan to meet next week to evaluate their options. Punta Gorda's Airport Director Gary Quill says they're monitoring the situation.
If any local towers are closed on April 1st, Soliday says they may have to rely on another airport like RSW for air traffic control, which could result it additional delays.
The more than 200 airports on the list of potential tower closings are listed here: http://www.faa.gov/news/updates/media/Facilities_Could_Be_Closed.pdf>