The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has decided to close one third of air traffic control (ATC) towers located at smaller airports from 7 April 2013, as part of its sequestration implementation plan.
The move would shut 149 ATC towers, of the earlier proposed 189, across 46 states. The towers are part of FAA's contract-tower programme that hires third-party controller staff to manage towers at small airports.
The agency has, however, decided not to close 24 federal contract towers that it had previously proposed, saying that they are important to the national airspace, while 16 towers under the cost share programme will also operate through funds set aside by congressional statute.
US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said that the agency has heard from communities across the country about the importance of their towers and these were very tough decisions.
"Unfortunately we are faced with a series of difficult choices that we have to make to reach the required cuts under sequestration," LaHood said.
The FAA's move comes after the budget sequester that took effect on 1 March 2013, upon which the agency proposed to close towers to meet the $637m in cuts, while narrowed down to 149 based on national interest.
FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said: "We will work with the airports and the operators to ensure the procedures are in place to maintain the high level of safety at non-towered airports."
Following the move, around 15,000 controllers working under the FAA could face unpaid leaves, while overnight shifts are also expected to be eliminated at an additional 72 control towers, leading to a drop in the efficiency and safety of takeoff and landing.
The National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) has criticised the FAA's decision, claiming that the move will damage the US aviation system and the country itself.
NATCA president Paul Rinaldi said that the closure of these air traffic control towers will reduce the overall margin of safety of the country's entire aviation system.
"The FAA made a bad situation worse by not utilising a well-thought-out process for evaluating the value of air traffic control towers before ordering their closure," Rinaldi said.
"Even if there was a good way to do this, the mandated budget cuts under sequestration have forced the FAA to prioritise its decision based on expediency rather than safety and efficiency."
According to the NATCA, the decision will face both short-term and long-term effects.
The federal contract control towers serve other important functions such as law enforcement activity, medical transport flights, search and rescue missions, business and commerce and supporting flight schools across America.
"Future aviators depend on these airports and tower services to continue their training," Rinaldi said.
"Every pilot starts in a small plane, including those who eventually fly commercial or military aircraft. If these schools shut down, an important pipeline of future aviators may be shut down too."
Image: FAA will commence a four-week phased shutting down of the 149 federal contract ATC towers from 7 April 2013. Image: courtesy of Beverly Municipal Airport.