Pending federal budget cuts slated to take effect starting at the end of the week could force the closure of the Federal Aviation Administration’s Air Traffic Control Tower at Gabreski Airport in Westhampton this spring, according to U.S. Representative Tim Bishop’s office.
The cuts, known as “sequestration,” would go into effect on Friday, March 1, and slash approximately $600 million from the approximately $15.2 billion FAA budget for the remainder of the 2013 fiscal year. Once in effect, the FAA will be forced to close 100 towers nationwide—including six in New York State—starting around April 1.
Without the control tower, Gabreski Airport would convert to a “non tower” operating status, meaning that pilots would be responsible for the safe operation of the aircraft, according to Mr. Bishop. The Suffolk County-owned airport, which is both a general aviation facility used by private aviation and air taxi services, and the home base for the Air National Guard’s 106th Air Rescue Wing, currently operates under “non tower” operations at night. Additionally, it is one of only three airports on Long Island with towered operations during the day; the other two tower-controlled airports on Long Island are Republic Airport in Farmingdale and MacArthur Airport in Ronkonkoma.
“Sequestration would be a self-inflicted wound on our fragile economic recovery and it can be avoided if the Republican leadership in the House [of Representatives] would compromise on a balanced solution to our fiscal challenges,” said Mr. Bishop, a Democrat from Southampton, in a prepared statement issued late last week. “The impact will be felt by all Long Islanders if sequestration is allowed to go forward.”
According to Anthony Ceglio, the manager of Gabreski Airport, a non-controlled airport is considered not as safe as other airports because pilots will have to be extra vigilant. Once an airplane enters a five-mile radius from the airport, pilots will have to announce their landing intentions over the radio. They will have to make a radio announcement through every step of the landing process and until their plane is safely on the ground and off the runway. Traditionally, pilots are guided to the runway by an air traffic controller in the tower who is also monitoring the paths of other planes in the area.
Mr. Ceglio said he recently received a letter from the FAA stating all towers that oversee fewer than 150,000 total operations each year would lose their towers if the sequestration cuts take effect. Last year, Gabreski Airport had 77,000 total operations, barely half of the required amount.
The loss of the tower will also be a blow to the local economy, officials said. If the tower closes, seven full-time air traffic controllers would lose their jobs at the airport, according to Mr. Ceglio. He is also concerned that several corporate jet owners could opt to utilize another airport with a tower due to safety concerns if the money isn’t made available.
“There will be a loss of revenue to all the businesses that operate here,” Mr. Ceglio said. “There will be a trickle down, or domino effect, that could be put into effect by this and if businesses aren’t getting the services they usually do for the aircraft, they could possibly have to start laying people off, too.”
It is unclear at this time how the lack of a tower will impact operations for the 106th Air National Guard, which makes up approximately 20 percent of operations at the airport. A representative from the Air National Guard was not immediately available for comment this week.
According to Oliver Longwell, a press representative for Mr. Bishop, the congressman is advocating for tax reforms that would generate new revenue instead of slashing funding. He explained that Mr. Bishop believes that necessary spending reductions should be prioritized by the federal government, and not rolled out as sweeping across-the-board cuts.
“Gabreski Airport is a vital resource both for general aviation and for the homeland security mission of the 106th Air Rescue Wing,” Mr. Bishop said in the same prepared statement. “Closing the tower could result in delays and potentially unsafe conditions in the air, especially during inclement weather and high aircraft volume.”