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March 28, 2013

Airport Towers Close Under Forced US Budget Cuts

by Chris Simkins

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration will close 149 air traffic control towers beginning in early April as part of mandatory spending cuts designed to trim millions of dollars from its budget. Transportation officials say the budget cuts to civil aviation will not compromise safety on the ground or in the skies. A community outside Washington where some think shutting down a newly-built control tower is a mistake.

Air traffic controllers at the Frederick, Maryland, airport will no longer guide pilots around this busy airspace. Under mandatory federal government spending cuts, this control tower - like 148 others at smaller airports across the country - is closing.

"For the tower to close we really would be treading backwards here," said airport manager Kevin Daugherty. He said closing the control tower strips away an extra layer of safety at Maryland's second-busiest airport.

"When you have corporate jets mixing in with flight training traffic, gliders, helicopters, it could be a mess. So that is the reason why the air traffic control tower was built here and opened," said Daugherty.

Shuttering a new tower

The government recently spent more than $5 million to build the tower, which opened last year. Now frustration is growing among contract controllers, like Mamie Ambrose, who are losing their jobs.  

"The FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] felt it was necessary to put a tower here because of the congestion, and now, suddenly, it is not a safety issue. Suddenly they want to close a tower down that hasn't even been open for a year," said Ambrose.

Todd Kirkpatrick moved from South Carolina to work in the Frederick tower. Now, like many contract controllers working at smaller airports, he will have to relocate to find another job.

"I took almost all of my savings and everything to move and transfer up here to take this job. Now here it is, less than a year later, and they're going to close us down. I have to turn around and take what little money is left over and move back [to South Carolina] with no job, collecting unemployment [insurance] because I cannot afford to live here on what unemployment is going to pay," said Kirkpatrick.

Ripple effect

The airport will remain open, but pilots will have to coordinate their takeoffs and landings among themselves over the radio.

Frederick Mayor Randy McClement said the tower closure will harm efforts to attract new business to the area.

"We had a little uptick [increase] in those jets coming to us, the corporate jets, because of the [air traffic control] tower. Some corporations wouldn't fly into the Frederick Municipal Airport because there was no tower," said McClement.

Frederick city officials say they hope closing the airport tower will not affect safety at the airfield, even though it will send important air traffic and business somewhere else.