Hawthorne Municipal Airport air traffic control tower. Federal sequester budget cuts would force layoffs of hundreds of municipal airport traffic
Hawthorne Municipal Airport air traffic control tower. Federal sequester budget cuts would force layoffs of hundreds of municipal airport traffic controllers, including those who work under contract for the FAA, as at Hawthorne's airport. (Brad Graverson / Staff Photographer)

Hawthorne Municipal Airport's air traffic control tower is among about 200 facilities nationwide that the FAA may soon stop funding, a move that could threaten the airport's security and financial viability, city officials said in appeals to stop the budget cut.

The Federal Aviation Administration has proposed cutting contract towers at 190 of the nation's smallest airports to comply with forced 5 percent across-the-board cuts that kicked in on March 1. The cutbacks, resulting from the sequestration deal in Washington, require government agencies to trim their budgets unless Congress agrees on alternatives to reduce federal spending and increase taxes. Funding for FAA contract towers would dry up in early April, but members of Congress have complained that the FAA could have cut less essential services.

One U.S. senator and 44 House representatives sent a letter to FAA Administrator Michael Huerta demanding to know why the agency chose to cut contract air traffic control towers rather than less vital programs.

"These airports handle 28 percent of tower operations nationwide, playing a vital role in our nation's transportation infrastructure," the March 14 letter states. "These cuts are drastic, unnecessary and should be re-evaluated. This is particularly disappointing considering that your organization spends $500 million on consultants and $200 million on travel each year, yet it apparently cannot find $30 million a month to offset sequester reductions. "

Kansas Republican Sen. Jerry Moran introduced an amendment on Wednesday that would provide $50 million to keep contract towers open, and reduce by $50 million unobligated FAA research and capital funds.

Other nearby control towers on the chopping block include those at Palmdale, La Verne, Victorville, Fullerton, Lancaster and El Monte airports. Torrance airport's control tower is not targeted for closure, but airport officials said they could see increased traffic.

The FAA is currently reviewing appeals from airport operators who believe national security would be compromised if they close their control towers.

David Grizzle, chief operating officer of the FAA's Air Traffic Organization, issued a letter explaining that the towers chosen for cuts were those with fewer than 150,000 total annual operations and fewer than 10,000 yearly commercial operations. Hawthorne has roughly 80,000 to 100,000 annual operations, airport officials said. Grizzle asked airport operators opposed to the closures to write appeals based on the potential threat to national security that could be created by having fewer air traffic control officers monitoring air space.

"Negative impact on the national interest is the only criterion the FAA will use for deciding to continue services to an airport that falls below the activity threshold," Grizzle wrote. "The FAA is unable to consider local community impact that does not affect the national interest. "

The Hawthorne City Council responded with a letter expressing "grave concerns" about the proposal.

"To close the tower would ... make (the airport) a liability to the city of Hawthorne and the entire Los Angeles region," the letter states. "Do not close our control tower. "

Pat Carey, a flight instructor, FAA-designated pilot examiner and chairman of the Southern California Airspace Users Working Group, called the proposed cuts "unbelievable. "

"The safety issues alone should be extremely obvious," Carey said in an appeal to the FAA not to close Hawthorne's tower. "Statistically, one third of all accidents occur at uncontrolled airports. Hawthorne airport will be at risk of closure. "

Arnie Shadbehr, Hawthorne's airport operations manager, said the city cannot afford to pay for its own air traffic controllers and estimated the cost at about $500,000 a year. Without air traffic controllers helping pilots land at the airport, corporate jets will be forced to land elsewhere, Shadbehr said.

"It's going to be extremely difficult to land, and pilots may be reluctant to use our airport because they will have to rely on visual approaches," Shadbehr said. "This is completely backward and is going to completely paralyze us and drastically reduce operations. "

With fewer air traffic controllers monitoring Los Angeles air space, the workload of controllers will be greatly increased, Carey said. This could create dangerous situations in the sky as planes try to negotiate simultaneous approaches in close quarters. Currently, Hawthorne has a federal waiver that allows its planes to approach even though parallel approaches with planes headed to Los Angeles International Airport have less than the industry-required 3 miles of lateral separation and 1,000 feet of vertical separation. Without an operating control tower, that waiver would be voided and business at the airport would plummet, Carey said.

"If the tower is closed, the small, medium and large corporate jet traffic (to Hawthorne airport) will have to return to LAX or other impacted airports in the area," Carey wrote to the FAA. "All commercial and general aviation operations will be severely impacted with huge delays to an airport that is currently operating very efficiently. Safety and security issues will be huge. "