Mid-air collision fear grows as control towers shut down

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CHICAGO - It's more than just jobs on the chopping block as air traffic control towers at 149 airports begin shutting down this month. Air traffic controllers, pilots, residents of affected towns, emergency medical personnel and many others warn that the automatic budget cuts mandated by the sequester last month are adversely affecting the nation's air safety.

There were two mid-air collisions at the Nashua. N.H. airport before the control tower was installed, officials there note and there have been none since the 1980's when the airport was equipped with an operating tower. The fear there and at airports across the country is that there can be more collisions now that control towers are closing.

Under orders to slash hundreds of millions of dollars from its budget, the Federal Aviation Administration began closing 149 air traffic control towers at small airports around the country.

Pilots are being forced to coordinate takeoffs and landings by radio, among themselves, with no help from ground controllers.

The training of new pilots now involves how to coordinate landings with a flight controller. The result, people in aviation say, is many new pilots having to land planes without the requisite training in how to do that job without the assistance of an air traffic controller.

Airport directors, pilots, the controllers themselves and many others are up in arms, arguing that removal of a key layer of safety during what aviators say is the most critical stage of any airplane flight raises danger levels and the risk of accidents unacceptably.

"The overall air system's safety is built on redundancy," said Paul Rinaldi, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, the union that represents controllers and others at the nation's airports. "Taking away the controllers is liking taking away an extra set of eyes. It's like removing the traffic light and stop signs from all the intersections and forcing drivers to be more vigilant. That is what the pilots are going to have to do from now on."

While airline spokespeople have not said so publicly thus far, there is talk at major airlines about the possibility of having to cancel service to airports that shut down their towers. Such moves would negatively impact the entire economy of communities serviced by those airports.

Mark Hanna, director of the Abraham Lincoln Capital Airport in Springfield, Il. says that without ground controllers the risk involved in landing an airplane "goes up exponentially." He noted that this is particularly true at an airport like Lincoln Capitol which has a wide variety of aircraft competing for landing time and space, everything from privately owned Piper Cubs to passenger planes run by United and American Airlines.

The closings of the towers, of course, are devastating for the controllers who lose their jobs. In Dubuque, Iowa, for example, four controllers lose their entire livelihoods on April 21, which will be their last day of work.

Todd Dalsing, the Dubuque airport operations supervisor, says closing the tower causes problems that go way beyond the hardship involved for the workers. He and others are concerned deeply about the safety of the flying public.

In addition to screwing up the normal training operations that take place at the Dubuque and other airports, the closings mean ground crews and other workers will now have to tell pilots about more of the information that they need to land safely - information the pilots normally would have gotten from the control tower.

One example of this is that runways and taxi-ways have to be painted periodically and potentially dangerous cracks have to be sealed. Those notices now must come from people on the ground, rather than from the control tower.

At a Nebraska airport losing its control tower specially trained medical evacuation personnel who bring critically injured patients to hospitals by helicopter say they won't be able to use some of their latest high tech equipment to save lives. Up until now the equipment allowed them to coordinate with the control tower so a flight path can be cleared to the nearest medical facility.

Elected officials are up in arms too. Miami Lakes Mayor Michael Pizzi said, "When you fly in without air traffic controllers, it's like the skyway equivalent of a four-way stop. To create a four-way stop in the sky above our communities isn't a very smart thing to do."

And, of course, the union that represents air traffic controllers, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, is none too happy. The union says the closings will impact a lot more than just traffic at the airports.

"These towers serve other important functions," said Rinaldi, "including law enforcement activity, medical transport flights, search and rescue missions, business and commerce and supporting flight schools across the country."

On the pilot training issue, then, the union sees the closings as harmful to the training of future pilots across the country.

"Our national aviation system is a vital economic engine," Rinaldi added. "It supports 10 million jobs and $1.3 trillion in economic activity. If you diminish the system, you diminish the economy. It's that simple."

Photo: A plane passes the control tower at Riverside Municipal Airport in Riverside, Calif. It is one of many towers to be shut down. (Mark Boster/AP & The Los Angeles Times)

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