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updated: 4/9/2013 12:33 PM

Waukegan airport might pay to keep tower operating under sequester

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  • Waukegan Regional Airport's control tower could go dark unless someone intervenes to halt federal cuts.

    Waukegan Regional Airport's control tower could go dark unless someone intervenes to halt federal cuts.
    Daily Herald File Photo


The fear of close calls -- or worse -- caused by absent air traffic controllers at Waukegan Regional Airport might lead stakeholders to dig into their own pockets to ensure safety.

But there are also fears that such desperate measures might backfire if the federal government sees the DIY trend as a way to save money.

There are no good answers as the impact of government cutbacks known as the sequester start hitting home, aviation experts say.

Waukegan Airport's air-traffic control tower is among 149 scheduled to close when the Federal Aviation Administration slashes $637 million in funding. The FAA has pushed back the cutoff dates to June 15, which buys Waukegan a little time to find Plan B.

With 50,000 operations a year, an unstaffed control tower at Waukegan is an accident waiting to happen, despite pilot vigilance, airport administrators think.

"Safety is a big factor," Airport Manager Jim Stanczak said. "The FAA stresses safety and they're doing something to decrease it."

That's why airport management and tenants, who range from corporations to local pilots, are considering temporarily paying for controllers to run the tower after the federal dollars dry up. The intent would be to intervene until Sept. 30, the end of the federal fiscal year, with the hope the FAA will restore funding in the 2014 budget. Airport administrators estimate covering the 3-month gap would cost $180,000.

However, there's an uneasiness that if the group pays for controllers temporarily, the government might seek to make that permanent. "The FAA might say, 'They can take care of themselves, they don't need our funding,'" Stanczak said.

Meanwhile, some other airports have sued the FAA seeking to reverse the tower closures.

If the congressional deadlock that's sparking the sequester reductions drags on, it could be a miserable travel season for fliers if longer lines at U.S. Customs and Border Patrol and Transportation Security Administration checkpoints occur.

Chicago Department of Aviation Commissioner Rosemarie Andolino acknowledged concerns about delays at O'Hare and Midway International Airports.

"We're watching it closely," she said in a recent interview. "We'll do what we have to do to support the TSA and Customs but there are limits to what we can do."

However, Andolino said, commissioning a new runway in October would go ahead as planned, "sequester or no sequester, we're opening it."

Recent funding legislation from Congress has given both TSA and Customs some breathing room, officials said Monday.

The U.S. Customs and Border Patrol "is re-evaluating previously planned furloughs and de-authorization of overtime and will postpone implementation of both at this time," a statement from the agency read.

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