A KC-135 refueling tanker takes off at Bangor International Airport in 2003 as other refueling planes and transport planes sit below the airport control tower.
By Kevin Miller
Washington Bureau Chief
WASHINGTON — Bangor International Airport and Manchester-Boston Regional Airport are among 60 airports nationwide that could lose overnight air traffic control shifts unless Congress and the White House reach a budget compromise soon, federal officials said Friday.
The staffing cuts are in the Federal Aviation Administration's plan to trim $600 million from its budget if the partisan stalemate on Capitol Hill continues, triggering $85 billion in across-the-board spending cuts March 1.
While acknowledging that the potential cutbacks could affect operations, airport officials insisted that air traffic will still be monitored and flight crews will be advised during landings and takeoffs, even with the loss of a late-night shift.
"The airport will certainly remain open 24/7," said Tony Caruso, director of the Bangor International Airport. "If the Bangor tower is closed during those hours, Boston (Logan International Airport) will continue to provide coverage. And pilots are trained to operate under those procedures."
Airports without control towers are fairly common in rural areas. They rely on air traffic controllers at bigger airports.
The prospect of losing around-the-clock staffing in Bangor and Manchester concerns officials including U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who fought a similar proposal for Bangor in 2005.
"Senator Collins spoke today with FAA Administrator Michael Huerta to express her serious concerns," said Collins's spokesman Kevin Kelley. "She fears that FAA's plan could disproportionately hurt airports, like Bangor International, in small, rural states where towers are used for civilian and military operations after midnight."
Caruso could not immediately provide statistics for the number of late-night arrivals or departures in Bangor, but he said flights do "operate regularly during those hours."
In addition to commercial carriers, planes carrying military personnel pass through Bangor at all hours because Bangor is a "port of entry" with 24-hour U.S. Customs and Immigration services.
International flights that get diverted because of mechanical problems or mid-flight emergencies are often routed to Bangor.
One concern is how commercial airlines would respond to the loss of 24-hour, on-premises coverage. Some won't schedule flights into airports without around-the-clock air traffic control towers, although Caruso noted that the Portland International Jetport lacks late-night staffing and still receives flights.
"It is a valid concern and is a very big concern for us," Caruso said. "We will advocate to the FAA to continue tower coverage 24/7."
Manchester-Boston Regional Airport typically does not schedule arrivals between midnight and 6 a.m., but flights do depart during those hours, said Assistant Director Thomas Malafronte.
He said airport officials are awaiting the FAA's full assessment of how it would make the staffing cutbacks -- if they're needed -- before deciding how to proceed.
"We are confident the FAA will make the right decision," Malafronte said. "But our position is, we always prefer to have a 24-hour tower, both for safety and operational reasons."
The FAA announced the potential cutbacks in a letter it released Friday, one week before the $85 billion in spending cuts are scheduled to begin. It was the latest in a series of dire predictions from the Obama administration as it pressures congressional Republicans to delay the cuts.
More than 100 smaller airports could lose their air traffic control towers altogether, although no Maine airports are on that list. And the vast majority of the FAA's 47,000 employees would be furloughed one day per pay period through September.
Travelers nationwide would likely feel the pinch. Officials said that, to maintain safety with fewer controllers working, they would likely "reduce the efficiency of the national airspace."
That's FAA-speak for allowing fewer planes into an airspace at any given time, likely causing longer waits on the tarmac and more circling before landings.
"As a consequence of employee furloughs and prolonged equipment outages resulting from lower parts inventories and fewer technicians, travelers should expect delays," wrote Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and FAA Administrator Huerta in the letter. "Flights to major cities like New York, Chicago and San Francisco could experience delays of up to 90 minutes during peak hours because we will have fewer controllers on staff."
Delays at those major airports would ripple throughout the network, LaHood warned in a news conference Friday.
Paul Rinaldi, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, the labor union representing controllers, said the proposed cuts would protect safety "at the expense of operations across the country."
Once towers are shut down, Rinaldi said, the airports may be next to disappear.
"Every one of these actions by the FAA will have an impact far beyond inconveniencing travelers," Rinaldi said in a prepared statement. "Local economies will be diminished, military exercises will be canceled and jobs will be lost. There's no telling how long these effects will be felt because many of these service reductions may not be reversed."
Washington Bureau Chief Kevin Miller can be contacted at 317-6256 or at:
On Twitter: @KevinMillerDCTweet