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Federal cuts will close 7 Southland air-traffic control towers

They include those in Lancaster, Fullerton, Riverside and San Diego. Critics say the closings are politically motivated and will have a big impact on public safety.

March 22, 2013|By Laura J. Nelson, Los Angeles Times
  • A FedEx plane is parked in front of Riverside Municipal Airport's air-traffic control tower, which is among those set to close next month.
A FedEx plane is parked in front of Riverside Municipal Airport's… (Mark Boster / Los Angeles…)

Seven air-traffic control towers in Southern California will close next month as a result of forced federal budget cuts, the Federal Aviation Administration announced Friday.

The FAA had considered closing as many as 189 towers at smaller airports across the nation, including 14 in Southern California. The agency must cut $637 million from its budget by Sept. 30 as part of $85 billion in so-called sequestration cuts across the federal government.

Southern California will lose towers in Fullerton, Oxnard, Riverside, San Diego, Victorville, Pacoima and Lancaster. Four more will close in Central and Northern California.

All of the towers that will shut down April 7 are certified by the FAA but operated by contractors. Overall, contractors run nearly half of the nation's towers, handling about 30% of the air traffic. Only three towers have been closed during the 31 years the program has existed, according to the U.S. Contract Tower Assn.

Critics have questioned whether the closures were necessary or part of a tactical gambit to gain leverage in Washington's ongoing budget battles. The contract tower association's executive director, Spencer Dickerson, said in a statement that "aviation safety shouldn't be politicized."

Many smaller airports operate without control towers, with pilots using radio communications to coordinate movements in the air and on the ground.

Still, local officials responsible for airport operations in Southern California's busy airspace said the FAA's decision is worrisome. Los Angeles County Supervisor Michael Antonovich chided the government for a "politically motivated decision." Shutting down towers would have little impact on spending levels, he said, but a big impact on public safety.

Airports in Lancaster and Pacoima each have more than 150,000 noncommercial takeoffs and landings each year, according to Bob Spencer, a spokesman for the L.A. County Department of Public Works. Multiple news agencies keep their helicopters at the Pacoima airfield, and Lancaster is home to the U.S. Forest Service's firefighting air tankers.

"We're certainly losing a level of safety," Spencer said. "Pilots are trained, they know what to do, but it doesn't take away from the fact that taking away the control towers means you're losing one set of eyes."

After the FAA warned of the tower closings earlier this month, many airports appealed. Two Southern California contract towers were spared from this round of cuts: Hawthorne Municipal Airport and a Palmdale facility that serves as a regional airport and an Air Force construction plant.

The FAA rejected an appeal from Oxnard Airport, said Todd McNamee, director of airports for Ventura County.

"I think there was an opportunity for the FAA to look at alternatives to funding cuts" for airport towers, McNamee said. "But it's out of my hands."

The FAA is considering closing an additional 43 towers staffed by its employees, including air traffic control operations in Camarillo, El Monte, La Verne and Santa Monica.

Times staff writer Ari Bloomekatz contributed to this report.

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