Gridlock in Washington could mean close calls at suburban airports, flight delays for travelers and postponing a new O'Hare International Airport runway, aviation experts warn.
Today marks the commencement of automatic federal budget cuts, known as the sequester, that include $600 million in cost reductions for the Federal Aviation Administration.
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If no deal is reached in Congress, the anticipated furloughs of the majority of the FAA's nearly 47,000 employees -- including air traffic controllers -- could kick in this April.
Locally, that could mean the closures of air-traffic control towers at Aurora Municipal, DuPage and Waukegan Regional airports. In addition, the FAA could eliminate overnight shifts at the DuPage Airport and Midway International Airport towers.
In a worst-case scenario, airport managers said they can manage without controllers or with reduced hours, but it's far from ideal.
"The airport has operated before without a tower and a lot still don't have towers," Waukegan Regional Airport Manager Jim Stanczak said. "My biggest issue is that closing the tower would be a safety issue. You can overcome these other things and you can't overcome safety."
DuPage Airport administrators plan to meet with the FAA soon to go over their options, Executive Director Dave Bird said. "It's still a month away. I'm still hopeful that Congress will all get together and come up with a resolution so this doesn't have to be implemented April 1. It's not ideal, but it's a way many airports across the country operate."
There is, however, some breathing space. The FAA must give 30 days' notice of furloughs, meaning they wouldn't kick in until early April.
Once that starts, travelers will be in for a bumpy ride, O'Hare tower controller Dan Carrico predicts.
The FAA is considering instituting one or two furlough days every two-week pay period. Two furlough days would equal losing 10 to 12 controllers, which would "be absolutely detrimental to the air-traffic system at O'Hare," said Carrico, a representative with the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.
Employee reductions at O'Hare and the Terminal Radar Approach Control facility in Elgin, which handles flights 5 miles out of O'Hare, means controllers could start spacing departures farther apart to increase safety, which translates into delays. "Instead of the standard 3-mile spacing between aircraft, you may have to give it 5 or 10 miles," Carrico said.
He also worried that the FAA might close down the north tower at O'Hare, although it's not on the agency's shortlist. In that worst-case scenario, arrivals would drop from 114 an hour to 72.
"When you plug that into the computer, it's an average delay of 45 minutes for every aircraft," Carrico said.
Carrico also speculated that furloughs would scuttle the two to three days of training required for controllers to get familiar with a new runway set to open in October.
"If we don't get that training, the runway will sit unused. It would be a place to park our delayed aircraft," he said.
Waukegan managed about 50,000 flight operations and DuPage handled 79,000 operations in 2012. A significant percentage of DuPage's traffic consists of corporate jets. Some aviation analysts predict that companies may curtail travel because of safety concerns.
DuPage's Bird said the airport's being proactive. "We're trying to get in touch with our tenants and see what their concerns are. With the economic impact we generate, and the number of corporate aviation operations, (DuPage Airports) is an important component of aviation infrastructure in Chicago if not the Midwest.
"Our fear is that this will have some impact to our activity levels, and those will get multiplied," he said.
The FAA has acknowledged that pilots using plane-to-plane radios would be left to coordinate landings and departures among themselves without ground controllers at affected airports.
Commercial pilot Robert Mark, who previously worked as an air traffic controller and supervisor at the DuPage Airport, thinks that "in most places, things work out pretty well and the pilots get it. We all learn to fly at places where there isn't a tower. But when you say, 'there's not that many airplanes, it's not that big a deal' ... in a sense that's true. But you only need two airplanes to be at the same place, at the same time. That's what people are concerned about."
Approaching an airport without controllers is "like getting on a busy highway," said Mark, a commercial pilot who publishes the aviation blog JetWhine. "That's the part that goes missing. Pilots will have no clue about what's going on on the ground. Does that increase the risk of a collision -- sure it does. If it didn't, these towers wouldn't be open in the first place."
He acknowledged that everything is speculative with uncertainty in Washington and over the FAA plans. But, "you have to be realistic about the risks you're taking by closing these towers down."
Local aviators had mixed reactions to the situation.
Pilot John Rippinger, a member of the Lima Lima Flight Team, uses both the Schaumburg and DuPage airports. An unmanned tower in DuPage is "no issue for me but a big inconvenience for all of the corporate jets based there," he said.
Pilot and air traffic controller Guy Lieser, who works at the FAA's Chicago Center facility in Aurora, thinks that closing towers is "not in anybody's best interest. The fear is that once they are closed, many will not reopen," he said. "And the bad news just keeps on coming for general aviation pilots. The rising cost of fuel, the sequester and reduced air traffic control services are driving many to sell their planes and get out of aviation altogether."
Aurora Municipal Airport Manager Robert Rieser would not say if he was concerned about the sequester or if there was a plan in place at the Sugar Grove facility. "I prefer to wait to see what they do before I make a comment," he said.