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Airport control towers facing shutdown from budget cuts

ACROSS MISSISSIPPI — Automatic federal budget cuts could shut down control towers at as many as seven Mississippi airports.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood warned of the closing of 100 airport towers at airports that have 150,000 flights or fewer each year if automatic federal spending cuts take effect March 1.

The Federal Aviation Administration says that among the airports that could be affected are Greenville’s Mid-Delta Regional Airport, Columbus’ Golden Triangle Regional Airport, Jackson’s Hawkins Field, Bay St. Louis’ Stennis International Airport, Meridian’s Key Field, Olive Branch Airport and Tupelo Regional Airport. They’re on a list of 200 airports from which the FAA expects to select 100 towers to be closed by April 1.

Midnight shifts could be eliminated for 60 towers nationwide, though none in Mississippi.

If towers close, pilots who are landing and taking off would probably communicate with each other on a common radio frequency. But it could slow down airport operations and make fields ineligible for some military operations.

Mike Hainsey, the executive director of Golden Triangle Regional Airport, told WCBI-TV that he’s mainly worried about the impact on Columbus Air Force Base, which plans to base some of its training planes at the civilian airport.

“For normal operations at the Golden Triangle Regional Airport, we would still be able to operate at a smaller, slower tempo, which would still maintain a level of safety,” Hainsey said. “Our No. 1 concern would be the impact on Columbus Air Force Base. Columbus Air Force Base is planning on the first of March on putting a dozen air planes there to operate to help them continue to produce students while their main runway is closed. They would not be able to do that if our tower is closed.”

The air base also faces civilian employee furloughs because of the budget cuts.

The FAA says it will cut $600 million from the rest of the 2013 budget year. LaHood warns that because other controllers will be furloughed without pay up to one day a week, delays are likely even with air travel to larger airports. LaHood warned of delays of up to 90 minutes to fly to major airports and predicted airlines will reschedule or cancel flights.

Mississippi’s members of congress didn’t immediately react to the proposed tower closings Friday. U.S. Rep Steven Palazzo, R-Miss., has said he wants to find a way to avert cuts to the military. U.S. Rep. Alan Nunnelee, R-Miss, warned against claims from President Barack Obama’s administration that the cuts, called sequestration, would cause large harms.

“As usual, there is more spin than truth coming from President Obama,” Nunnelee wrote in an open letter to constituents posted on his website Friday. “His hysterical claims about its impact are especially rich considering sequestration was his idea. This is his game: promise spending cuts down the road, more taxes now, and when the time comes to cut spending, demand even more tax increases.”


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About Megan Wright