By Doug Palmer
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Federal Aviation Administration said on Friday it will close 149 air traffic control towers at small airports across the country beginning on April 7 as it copes with automatic federal spending cuts.
The White House and transportation leaders have warned for weeks that the $85 billion in federal cuts known as "sequestration" would force smaller airports across the country to curtail operations.
The across-the-board cuts started kicking in on March 1 because Congress was not able to reach an alternative budget deal to replace them. The FAA must absorb $637 million in cuts by September 30.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said on Friday his department had tried to soften the blow.
The FAA said another 40 towers previously slated for closure will remain open, either because them shutting them would not be in the national interest or because money was found in a federal cost-sharing program to keep them open.
"We heard from communities across the country about the importance of their towers and these were very tough decisions," LaHood said in a statement. "Unfortunately we are faced with a series of difficult choices that we have to make to reach the required cuts under sequestration," LaHood said.
The FAA does not expect any airports to have to shut down because of the tower closings, an agency spokeswoman said.
Republican lawmakers expressed concern about the decision and asked LaHood in a letter for the analysis showing that closing each tower, as well as so many towers simultaneously, would not jeopardize safety.
Republicans have repeatedly accused the White House of exaggerating the effects of sequestration in an attempt to shift the blame for a failed budget deal to Republicans.
"We are deeply disappointed by the Administration's choice today to push ahead with its proposed contract tower closings and are concerned about potential impacts on aviation safety," said House of Representatives Transportation Committee Chairman Bill Shuster and Senator John Thune, the top Republican on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.
CORPORATE JETS, PRIVATE PLANES
FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said the agency would work with affected airports and operators to ensure procedures are in place to maintain a high level of safety.
Though the control tower is often the first thing passengers on commercial flights see on landing, most of the country's 5,000 publicly used airports don't have them.
In addition to the 292 operated by the FAA, another 251 are staffed by three private companies: Midwest Air Traffic Control Service, Robinson Aviation (RVA) Inc and Serco Inc, in a public-private program called the FAA Contract Tower Program (FCT).
The FAA said it would phase in the closures over four weeks, and will work with communities that decide to participate in the agency's non-federal tower program and assume the cost of continued on-site air traffic control services at their airport.
The targeted towers all have fewer than 150,000 takeoffs and landings or 10,000 commercial flights a year. They cater to corporate jets and individuals with private planes. Many also house flight schools, serve as hubs for smaller airlines, or provide relief capacity for larger airports nearby.
The FAA said on Friday it had decided to keep 24 of the towers open because closing them would have a negative impact on the national interest. It made those decision based on a number of factors, including national security, the expected impact on the local community and whether the airport served by the tower is a critical diversionary airport for a large hub.
Another 16 towers under a "cost-share" program were spared because the required 5 percent cut to that portion of the budget did not require them to be closed.
The 149 towers to be closed are spread over three dozen states in cities including Tuscaloosa, Alabama; New Smyrna Beach, Florida; Battle Creek, Michigan; Branson, Missouri; Atlanta, Georgia; and Olive Branch, Mississippi.
Florida, Texas, California, Oklahoma, Wisconsin and Washington were among the states with the most closings.
Here is a link to the FAA's list of the towers to be closed: http://www.faa.gov/news/media/fct_closed.pdf
(Reporting by Doug Palmer; Editing by Todd Eastham)