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FAA Eyes Santa Monica Airport Tower for Closure

Santa Monica Real Estate Company, Roque and Mark
By Jason Islas
Staff Writer

February 27, 2013 – The Santa Monica Airport (SMO) air-traffic control tower is on the chopping block as the Department of Transportation looks for ways to cut $1 billion in spending unless a budget agreement is reached by Friday.

SMO's tower, which employs 14 air traffic controllers, is on a list of 241 towers at small airports around the country. The FAA is expected to close down about 100 of those towers.

The potential closures were mentioned in a February 22 letter sent by Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood announcing that the majority of the cuts -- $600 million -- would come from the Federal Aviation Administration.

In addition to shutting down the towers, the agency could furlough 47,000 employees, end midnight shifts in more than 60 towers across the country and slow down repairs.

SMO Manager Bob Trimborn emphasized that no decisions have been made.

“This is all a very fluid, dynamic state,” he said, adding that the list of airports, all of which support fewer than 150,000 flights a year, is a preliminary one.

News that the FAA is considering SMO's tower for closure, however, mobilized some of the airport's opponents.

John Stein, head of Sunset Park Anti-Airport, Inc. (SPAA), said that his organization would advocate for the closure.

“The impact of closing the tower will be to relentlessly decrease flight operations,” he said. “It may happen in one manner or a different manner, but it will happen.”

That isn't a foregone conclusion, airport officials said.

“There's nothing guaranteed here one way or another,” said Trimborn. “It's all conjecure.”

Trimborn noted that the majority of general aviation airports, like SMO, operate without control towers.

Some opponents of the airport have mixed feelings about the potential closure.

“I'm of two minds in this particular case,” said John Fairweather, founder of Community Against Santa Monica Airport Traffic (CASMAT).

“On the one side, I can see a considerable amount of danger involved in closing the tower,” he said. “On the other hand, it's quite likely it will reduce traffic.”

Martin Pastuscha, the City’s director of Public Works, said that no mater what the FAA decides, “Safety is our top priority.

“If the FAA closes the tower, they will have to make accommodations for that,” he said, adding that the decision “would not compromise the safety of the airport.”

However, closing the tower could make the airport less efficient. With an air-traffic control tower, take-offs and landings can be managed from the ground, allowing for pilots to line up and land or take-off in succession.

Without the tower, they can only take-off or land one at a time, which could slow down operations.

What might happen at SMO if the tower closes is just a small snapshot of what could happen at airports across the nation as a result of the March 1 budget cuts.

“Sequester… will have a very serious impact on the transportation services that are critical to the traveling public and to the nation’s economy,” LaHood said Friday.

“Flights to major cities like New York, Chicago, and San Francisco and others could experience delays of up to 90 minutes during peak hours because we have fewer controllers on staff,” he said. “Delays in these major airports will ripple across the country.”

LaHood said he has been warning the Congress of the potential problems airports and travelers would face if no agreement on the Federal budget is reached.

“These are harmful cuts with real-world consequences that will cost jobs and hurt our economy,” he said.

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