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Cutting control towers will make airspace less safe, reduce air traffic, harm the economy

Published: Thursday, March 28 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

A UVU student practices landings and takeoffs at the Provo Municipal Airport.

Sam Penrod, Deseret News

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Operating an airport without a control tower is not as dangerous or preposterous as some in the general public might think. Hundreds of United States airports operate that way each day, with pilots communicating with each other over a common frequency and indicating their intentions to land or take off.

But danger increases along with the level of traffic.

Whether the automatic budget cuts known as sequestration are being applied with politics in mind is an open debate. The administration has to cut $637 million from the Federal Aviation Administration by the end of the year. One thing that is beyond debate, however, is the safety of the skies over the U.S. Commercial air disasters occur rarely, with the last one coming more than four years ago. That is an impressive safety record. It is frightening, therefore, to hear government and aviation officials warn that budget cuts will make U.S. airspace less safe. Those predictions alone are likely to reduce air traffic and harm the economy.

Whether skies over the United States are over-controlled is impossible to tell. But a rational approach to solving the nation's budget imbalance probably wouldn't target the FAA's paltry budget while entitlement programs grow out of control.

In Utah, authorities are planning to cut all traffic controllers from the Ogden and Provo airports beginning April 7, unless Congress and the president agree to a package of more rational cuts and revenue enhancements. Given how the economy seems to be surging despite sequestration, there is little pressure on either side to reach such an agreement.

Both Provo and Ogden can make logical arguments for avoiding cuts. Provo sees a great deal of traffic from student pilots being trained at a nearby flight school. Ogden's airport is only a few miles from Hill Air Force Base. Its traffic needs to be coordinated with the base and nearby Salt Lake International Airport. Both Ogden and Provo also have several regional commercial flights each week.

But their cases are hardly more persuasive than those of many of the 149 airports whose controllers are on the chopping block. In Trenton, N.J., for instance, officials argue they need to coordinate traffic through the busy New York corridor. The airport houses private jets belonging to many Fortune 500 companies. Southern California, meanwhile, is scheduled to lose controllers at 14 airports, which will have a huge impact in a heavily traveled region.

The danger lies not so much in requiring pilots to watch out for each other as they take off and land. It is that they have been used to relying on controllers at airports that now will be silent, and their maps and other reference materials concerning frequencies may be outdated.

Congress is grasping for solutions without grappling with the real problem. Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, has proposed taking $50 million that was targeted for FAA research and using it instead to keep some traffic controllers around. That plan isn't likely to go too far, and it wouldn't supply much when compared with the $637 million being cut.

Others, like Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., are accusing the White House of making sure a disproportionate number of airports are being cut from Republican districts.

Politics is forever with us, and each major party would love for the other to look petty and irresponsible. It would take just one major accident for those games to stop. Given the level of training necessary for a pilot's license, we don't anticipate such a thing.

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