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Sacramento airports could lose controllers under sequester cuts

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1A
Last Modified: Friday, Mar. 22, 2013 - 1:40 pm

No air traffic controllers? No problem.

Federal officials are warning that the control tower at Sacramento International Airport could go dark during overnight hours if massive sequester budget cuts kick in. The tower at Sacramento Executive Airport could close altogether.

But the man in charge of Sacramento's airports said Monday that operations would proceed without interruption. There are protocols in place for pilots to take off and land even without control towers, said Rob Leonard, interim director of the Sacramento County Airport System.

"Is it desirable? No. Can activity continue safely? Yes," Leonard said.

He said Sacramento International could operate overnight without controllers because of the relative scarcity of traffic.

"You need control towers when you have busy congested airspace," he said. Only a handful of flights, including cargo planes, typically use Sacramento International overnight.

By contrast, he said the FAA would never allow operations to continue without controllers at a facility like San Francisco International.

Leonard said Sacramento Executive, home to thousands of general aviation flights each year, could similarly operate even if the control tower is closed completely.

As it is, the tower at Executive Airport sometimes goes unmanned, he said.

Other airports in the region operate completely without controllers, including McClellan Park and the Rancho Murieta air facility, he said.

Sacramento International is one of 72 airports nationwide that could lose overnight air traffic controllers as part of the sequester cuts. About 141 general aviation airports like Sacramento Executive would lose controllers completely.

Scott Powell of Sacramento Jet Center, which runs ground operations at Executive Airport, said losing the control tower would likely cost the facility some business. He said operators of corporate jets prefer airports with controllers.

The budget cuts are due to take effect Friday, but the impact wouldn't show up at airports until April.

All told, about $85 billion is supposed to be cut from the federal budget this year if Congress and the White House don't agree on some sort of alternative. Although the FAA's budget cuts total only $600 million, that agency has put out the most detailed and site-specific information.

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