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Airports big and small may feel effects of budget feud

Changes could bring longer security lines for passengers and fewer available flights.

March 01, 2013|Hugo Martin
  • The FAA could be forced to close more than 100 air traffic control towers across the country, including at Santa Monica Airport, above.
The FAA could be forced to close more than 100 air traffic control towers… (Genaro Molina, Los Angeles…)

Get ready for longer lines at Los Angeles International Airport, slower delivery of packages and the possible shutdown of small Southern California airport control towers if a resolution isn't reached on federal budget cuts.

The good news is that the biggest effects probably will not take hold until April, giving President Obama and congressional leaders time to hammer out a deal to resolve the budget feud.

But if no agreement is reached, the Federal Aviation Administration will be forced to cut its budget about $600 million. That could force the FAA to close more than 100 air traffic control towers across the country, primarily at smaller regional airports, including in Santa Monica, Victorville and Oxnard.

The night shift for air traffic controllers could also be eliminated at about 70 larger airports, including LA/Ontario International.

The federal agency has also put out the option of furloughing FAA employees for one or two days per two-week pay period, beginning in mid-April.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday, March 02, 2013 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 60 words Type of Material: Correction
Airport cutbacks: In the March 1 Business section, an article about the possible effects of federal budget cuts on airports said that the elimination of overnight shifts at the control tower at L.A./Ontario International Airport would affect 73 cargo flights, or 36% of all cargo operations each day. In fact, the cuts would affect 36% of 73 daily cargo flights.

At Los Angeles International Airport, officials say it is too early to gauge how much of an effect the budget cuts would have on the average air traveler.

But Transportation Security Administration head John Pistole said lines at security gates at major airports across the country could grow longer during the peak spring and summer travel seasons if he is forced to cut overtime pay, which would reduce the number of screening officers.

"The longer it goes, the greater the potential impact," he said of the budget battle.

The National Air Traffic Controllers Assn. expects the cuts to lead to fewer flights and increased delays of as long as 90 minutes during peak hours.

"Safety will remain the top priority, but in order to maintain the appropriate level of safety with fewer controllers, fewer planes will be allowed in the sky, as well as in and out of airports," the group said in a statement.

The FAA has announced plans to shut down towers at airports with fewer than 150,000 landings and takeoffs a year. Santa Monica Airport, which is on the FAA closure list, has about 105,000 landings and takeoffs a year. Van Nuys Airport, which is not on the list, has more than 250,000 landings and takeoffs.

Still, the effect on smaller airports on the FAA cut list may not be severe because pilots can land and depart without the help of an air traffic controller by keeping track of each other through radio communications.

Joe Justice, who operates Justice Aviation, a company that offers flying lessons at Santa Monica Airport, said he doesn't expect his business to face major changes if the tower is closed.

"We would continue to give flying lessons," he said. "There would be no reason not to. We would depart here and practice at a place where there is an open tower."

Private jet charter companies said they may even get more business if sequestration increases delays on commercial airlines, forcing passengers to charter a jet.

"People who are sitting on the fence about wanting to hire a private jet may spend the extra money so they won't be caught in a situation where they have no idea how long their delays will be," said Ben Schusterman, founder of Los Angeles-based ElJet.

The closure of overnight shifts at the control tower in Ontario could eliminate 12 passenger flights, or 9% of operations, but a bigger effect would be the loss of 73 cargo flights, or 36% of all cargo operations.

Cargo operators at Ontario said they were still unsure of the effect of budget cuts on their businesses.

"UPS is closely monitoring the sequestration proceedings," United Parcel Service Inc. spokesman Mike Mangeot said. "And while we are in communications with the FAA regarding the effects of the possible cuts, it is premature to speculate at this time."

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hugo.martin@latimes.com

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