U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal visited Hartford’s Brainard Airport on Monday to announce an effort to shield contracted air traffic control towers from closure under across-the-board federal spending cuts called sequestration.
Like other federal agencies, the Federal Aviation Administration is slated for a 5 percent cut. However, Blumenthal said the agency has opted to cut by 75 percent its funding for air traffic control towers run by private companies.
“All our amendment does is say the 5 percent should apply to cuts to the control towers as well as all the other [FAA] operations,” he said.
Blumenthal said it was a “mystery” to him why the agency has decided to hit the program with what amounts to a $50 million cut. But the result would be the closure of air traffic control towers like the ones at Brainard and Tweed Airport in New Haven, where Blumenthal said that about 120 full- and part-time jobs would be lost.
“Jobs are so dependent on the air traffic control towers, along with local economies,” he said. “. . . The ripple effects of these closures is tremendous and it matters to our state and to other states that are involved.”
Terry Keller, a flight instructor at Brainard, said the closure of the tower would also raise some safety concerns. Keller compared the closure of a tower to traffic light outages during recent storms.
“It wasn’t chaos necessarily, but it was certainly less efficient and we had a higher risk for all the drivers,” he said. “At an airport where there’s not a control tower and there used to be, there’s going to be a higher level of risk through the reduced level of services as the pilots all try to mix together.”
Mark Roderick, an air traffic controller at Brainard, was hesitant to “pull the safety card.” He said he didn’t want to undermine the public’s confidence in what he said was still the world’s safest air traffic control system. But he said it would do nothing to enhance safety and will slow things down for air passengers.
“These people don’t want to come out here and waste time out on the Tarmac this July when it’s 90 out here and you’ve got six airplanes out here waiting to go. Without a control tower, they’re going to be talking to each other on a common frequency. It’s going to make it pretty congested,” he said. “. . . People don’t buy airplanes to go slow.”
On a personal level, Roderick said he would lose the job he has been working since 2006.
“Basically, the funding will stop for the contract towers and we will no longer report for duty,” he said. “The job is over in effect, and we’re basically laid off, if you will. It’s quite a cut in salary.”
Roderick said he hoped Blumenthal’s effort will galvanize the aviation community and convince Congress to keep the towers open.
“This is not a partisan issue. I want to stay away from the politics to the extent possible. We provide a service to the flying public and hopefully the spinoff generated is positive,” he said.
Blumenthal said because his amendment would not cost the FAA anything beyond what it is already spending, it has broad support.
“[Republicans] are totally on board with this amendment because the money is there. It’s deficit neutral,” he said. “The FAA has had this money appropriated in past years for capital and research expenditures but hasn’t used it.”
The cuts are scheduled to go into effect on April 7, according to Blumenthal. In addition to Brainard and Tweed, the cuts would impact four other airports in Connecticut including Stratford’s Sikorsky Airport, Danbury Airport, Groton-New London Airport and Waterbury-Oxford Airport.
In a statement, state Sen. Michael McLachlan, R-Danbury, thanked the state’s congressional delegation for working on behalf of his town’s airport.
“Six people are employed at the Danbury tower, and that’s six more people who are faced with going without work in a time when they are already sacrificing a great deal,” he said. “The funding cut also takes away revenue from municipalities, because there are several aviation businesses at these smaller contract airports.”