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updated: 2/25/2013 8:23 AM

Fed cuts could shut Illinois airport control towers

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  • The air traffic control tower at the DuPage Airport in West Chicago could be shut down if lawmakers fail to avert federal spending cuts next month.

       The air traffic control tower at the DuPage Airport in West Chicago could be shut down if lawmakers fail to avert federal spending cuts next month.
    Mark Black | Staff Photographer, 2012

 
Associated Press

Air traffic control towers could be shut down at nine Illinois airports, including the Aurora Airport, DuPage Airport and the Waukegan Regional Airport in the Chicago suburbs, if no deal is reached in Washington to avert federal spending cuts scheduled to take effect Friday.

In preparation for cuts that would squeeze many government agencies, the Federal Aviation Administration is making plans to eliminate $600 million in spending for the rest of the fiscal year, leading transportation officials to warn of a multitude of travel disruptions.

The steps could include the closure of more than 100 air traffic control towers at smaller airports nationwide, including the Aurora Municipal Airport in Sugar Grove, the DuPage Airport in West Chicago and Waukegan Regional Airport in suburban Chicago.

Administrators at each of the three airports could not immediately be reached for comment Saturday night.

Skip Goss, a 25-year pilot and president of Skill Aviation, a FAA-certificated flight school that operates out of Waukegan, said closing towers at smaller airports would put even more pressure Chicago Approach Control, a tower that coordinates flights for all Chicago area airports.

"They're already short-handed as it is. It certainly will compromise safety," Goss said. "It will make things difficult for the system. And it inevitably will cause delays."

Goss also said many corporations won't fly into airports that don't have an active tower. Waukegan and DuPage have a lot of corporate travel and could lose money in fuel receipts and other services.

"We all understand cuts need to be made. But to do it randomly like this, it's not safe or smart," he added. "There's going to a ripple effect. It's going to cause delays everywhere."

The airfields would still be allowed to operate, but pilots using plane-to-plane radios would be left to coordinate landings and takeoffs among themselves with no assistance from ground controllers, according to the FAA.

The agency's list of airports where towers would be closed points to nine in Illinois, including Springfield, Bloomington-Normal, Decatur, Carbondale and St. Louis Regional Airport in East Alton, Ill. O'Hare International Airport was not on the list. All nine listed airports have fewer than 150,000 flight operations per year.

In addition, overnight shifts at air traffic control facilities could be scrapped at three Illinois airports, including Chicago's Midway and the DuPage Airport.

The FAA said Friday that those and other changes would not compromise safety, though it warned of reduced efficiency.

In particular, it said passengers flying to major cities like New York, Chicago and San Francisco should expect delays of up to 90 minutes during peak hours because fewer controllers will be on duty.

In addition to tower shutdowns, the FAA is considering employee furloughs and a reduction in preventive maintenance.

If no budget deal is reached, the spending cuts would automatically take effect Friday.

The FAA changes would begin in April and continue through the end of the fiscal year in September.

• Daily Herald staff writer Harry Hitzeman contributed to this story.

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