The FAA will shut down the air-traffic control tower at Waukegan Regional Airport effective April 7 as part of cost reductions triggered by the so-called sequester.
The automatic budget cuts were intended to be a last resort, but congressional gridlock has made the legislative threat a painful reality, local airports are finding.
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"It's very discouraging," Waukegan Airport Manager Jim Stanczak said.
The airport will continue to operate, but safety is a paramount concern, he added.
With about 50,000 flight operations a year, the facility is used by a variety of clients -- including fast-moving corporate jets and general aviation aircraft. "There's a big difference between them, and you have to be very alert," Stanczak said.
"Sure, a lot of pilots operate out of non-control-tower airports, but they don't have the volume or mixed bag we do."
Waukegan is among 149 federal contract towers slated to be shut down out of an earlier list of 189. Contract towers operate under Federal Aviation Administration rule, and the FAA hires private contractors to operate them.
In February the agency released a list of about 200 towers possibly on the chopping block -- both contract and FAA-operated facilities. Among the FAA-staffed towers were the DuPage Airport and Aurora Municipal Airport in Sugar Grove. Since then, the agency has focused its sights on the contract towers, one reason being it must give a year's notice to air traffic controller unions at FAA-run locations, union leaders said.
But DuPage Airport isn't in the clear, Executive Director Dave Bird said. "At a minimum, we're good through the end of the federal fiscal year (Sept. 30). There's no official word of what will happen after that," he said. "We're still concerned we may lose federal funding for the control tower."
Some towers were spared if the agency decided closures would hurt the national interests in terms of security, the economy, transportation flow between states and the extent the facility served as a reliever for major hubs.
If that was the criteria, Stanczak said he's mystified why Waukegan didn't qualify. "We're a reliever airport for the Chicago airspace," he said.
Stanczak argued that Waukegan is significant in that high-profile officials including former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta have used it to reach the Great Lakes Naval Training Center. It's also used by the U.S. Coast Guard for search and rescue operations from spring to fall, he added.
And Stanczak added that government officials overlooked the impact to major corporations like Baxter International or Abbott, whose executives use Waukegan.
"We heard from communities across the country about the importance of their towers, and these were very tough decisions," U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a statement. "Unfortunately, we are faced with a series of difficult choices that we have to make to reach the required cuts under sequestration."
That reasoning didn't convince Republican Sen. Mark Kirk or Democrat Sen. Dick Durbin.
Kirk "believes that haphazardly closing federal air-traffic control contract towers is damaging to the economic development and safety of communities throughout Illinois," spokesman Lance Trover said in an email. "Sen. Kirk will continue to look for ways to find efficiencies in support of the contract tower program."
Durbin said in a statement the move showed how sequestration cuts "are going to have real impacts on real people in Illinois. We need to stop sequestration with a balanced solution of budget cuts and revenue."
Other Illinois towers getting axed are at Central Illinois Regional Airport in Bloomington, St. Louis Regional Airport east of Alton, Decatur Airport and Southern Illinois Airport in Carbondale, plus Kenosha Regional Airport in Wisconsin.
While many smaller airports operate without controllers, doing so can be a safety problem at busy facilities, experts caution. Approaching an airport without controllers is like merging onto a highway, commercial pilot and former controller Robert Mark of Evanston told the Daily Herald in February. "We all learn to fly at places where there isn't a tower. But you only need two airplanes to be in the same place at the same time" for a crash to happen, he said.