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Sequester could close Sonoma County airport control tower

Published: Saturday, February 23, 2013 at 6:50 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, February 23, 2013 at 6:50 p.m.

The air traffic control tower at Sonoma County's regional airport may be shut down if the nation's elected leaders can't reach a budget deal by Friday, a scenario some fear could limit commercial passenger flights in and out of Santa Rosa or halt them entirely.

The control tower, which employs about a dozen federal employees, is on a list of 200 facilities at smaller airports that Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood warned Friday could be shut down as part of automatic spending cuts scheduled for March 1.

Alaska Airlines, which operates ten daily flights in and out of Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport, could continue to offer that service if the control tower shut down, said John Stout, the airport manager.

But he said pilots of the 76-seat turbo-prop planes flown by the airline would be on their own to guide the aircraft in and out of the airport, as would non-commercial pilots of smaller planes.

Stout said Alaska already operates out of several airports nationwide that lack air traffic control. The airline's first daily departure and last arrival at the Sonoma County airport also are without the assistance of controllers because the tower is closed during those hours.

But Stout said “it's always better when you have extra eyes.”

Stout said he tried reaching Alaska on Friday to ask what the airline intends to do if the Sonoma County tower is closed. Airline representatives did not return several messages left Friday and Saturday seeking comment.

About $1.2 trillion would be automatically cut from federal spending over the next decade if President Obama cannot reach a budget-reduction agreement with Congress by Friday. That amounts to about $85 billion in the remaining months of this fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.

The legislative process that would force the cuts is known as a “sequester.”

Lahood said 100 control towers from the proposed closure list could ultimately shut down by April 1 if an agreement isn't reached by Friday's budget deadline. The Federal Aviation Administration would meet with air-traffic controllers and airlines to decide which of the towers would be shuttered.

The control tower at Napa County's airport also is on the proposed closure list.

Stout said the FAA leases the tower at the Sonoma County airport for about $65,000 a year, and that losing that money would force the airport to trim some expenses. The airport operating budget is about $7.5 million.

Stout said the dozen or so federal air traffic controllers who work at the airport and earn $80,000 to $100,000 a year could be furloughed as little as two days a month or laid off.

Statewide, about 225,000 federal jobs are at risk, according to Congressman Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena. He predicted Friday that Congress won't resolve the budget stalemate until after the cuts hit and the public sees the consequences.

In a prepared statement, Thompson blamed the Republican majority in the House for playing “political games” that could cost jobs and “unnecessarily (put) people's safety at risk.”

Sonoma County's air traffic controllers monitor five miles of airspace that surround the facility northwest of Santa Rosa. All pilots are required to have a radio to keep in contact with controllers, Stout said.

That requirement would go away if the tower were to close and the airspace revert to being uncontrolled. Pilots would be on their own to safely maneuver into place for take-offs and landings.

Stout said he has concerns about the faster and larger Bombardier Q400 turboprop aircraft operated by Alaska overtaking smaller aircraft without guidance from air traffic controllers.

“It wouldn't be any different than (airports) at Petaluma, Cloverdale and Healdsburg. We just have bigger airplanes,” he said.

Alaska operates ten flights daily to and from Sonoma County's airport. Ridership grew 3 percent last year to nearly 214,000 passengers, a jump attributed largely to added flights last summer to Southern California.

Stout said it's possible passengers could face longer security lines at the airport if the worst-case scenario plays out in Washington. He said security at the Sonoma County airport is provided by a federal contractor.

“They may have fewer people operating the checkpoints. That may slow down the process,” he said.

Stout said the Sonoma County airport also houses a federal facility that maintains navigational equipment at airports on the coast north of the Golden Gate Bridge. He said about a dozen employees work at that facility.

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