By Gary Walker
Although Washington, D.C. is nearly 3,000 miles away, the potential after-effects of the federal sequester could stretch all the way to the coast of Santa Monica.
The air traffic control tower at Santa Monica Airport is on a list of airport facilities released by the Federal Aviation Administration March 1 – the day the sequestration officially began – that might be closed soon due to potential furloughs of airport personnel, including air traffic controllers.
Nearly 100 air traffic control towers at airports with fewer than 150,000 flight operations or 10,000 commercial operations per year are on the endangered list as sequestration moves past its first week of implementation, and from headlines into real life.
Sequestration is a budget cutting mechanism that was agreed upon by President Barack Obama and Congress last year following the battle over raising the debt ceiling. It mandates $1.2 trillion in budget cuts over 10 years, with $85 billion coming in the remainder of the 2013 fiscal year.
Santa Monica Airport Director Robert Trimborn is uncertain when or if the tower will be shut down.
“It’s a very fluid situation right now,” Trimborn said. “I don’t think that anyone has experienced (the effects of a federal sequester) before.”
In a Feb. 22 letter, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood outlined the potential consequences of the sequester and how the department and the FAA would be addressing them over the next several weeks.
“To prepare for the possibility of a budget sequestration on March 1, 2013, the Federal Aviation Administration is making plans to reduce its expenditures by approximately $600 million for the remainder of (fiscal year) 2013,” LaHood wrote. “The purpose of this letter is to advise you of the operational changes we are considering to enable you to make your own plans to minimize the impact to the operations of your organizations and members.”
Michael Foote heads the air traffic controllers union at Los Angeles International Airport. Because of the sequester, he said operations at LAX could be impacted for several weeks.
“I think those who travel to LAX and Santa Monica can expect delays and departures,” Foote said.
Reductions in defense are a large component of sequestration, and the president warned that other sectors of government – food inspection, education, federal construction workers and public safety – could also eventually be impacted.
Santa Monica Airport is a general aviation airfield that has been a flashpoint of intense community debate over the last several years regarding the rights of airport businesses to exist, air pollution generating from the aircraft that depart from and land there, noise, and the proximity of its runway to adjacent neighborhoods near Santa Monica.
Martin Rubin, the director of an anti-pollution group called Concerned Residents Against Airport Pollution, said the tower at Santa Monica Airport is not the part of the airport that should be shuttered.
“I consider (Santa Monica Airport) to be an unsafe airport even with a control tower; without one it would be even less safe,” said Rubin, who advocates for the airport’s closure. “Don’t close the tower; close the airport.”
LaHood’s department plans to furlough the vast majority of the FAA’s nearly 47,000 employees, including all management and non-management employees working within the Air Traffic Organization for approximately one day per pay period until the end of the fiscal year.
In September, that will increase to a maximum of two days per pay period.
There are also plans to eliminate midnight shifts in over 60 towers across the country.
According to LaHood, Santa Monica’s control tower could be closed by next month.
“All of these changes will be finalized as to scope and details through collaborative discussions with our users and our unions. We will commence furloughs and start facility shut-downs in April,” the transportation secretary wrote.
“As a consequence of employee furloughs and prolonged equipment outages resulting from lower parts inventories and fewer technicians, travelers should expect delays. 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.”
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said Los Angeles will feel financial pain because of Washington’s inability to work together collaboratively.
“Due to the failings of Congress, the American people are faced with a fiscal calamity out of their control. Sequestration is no longer a maybe, it’s a reality,” the mayor said in a March 1 statement.
“In Los Angeles, we stand to lose $115 million in critical programs and services this year. An additional $37 million in cuts will directly impact our kids at Los Angeles Unified School District.”
Rep. Maxine Waters (D- Westchester) warned that the automatic reductions could spread to other sectors of the economy as well.
“The $85 billion in automatic spending cuts will have a devastating impact on families throughout the country, and will slow economic growth and job creation,” the congresswoman stated on her website.
“If sequestration occurs, services and programs that millions of Americans rely on like Meals on Wheels, Head Start, and rental assistance programs for low-income families would be affected,” Waters continued. “In addition, sequestration would eliminate funding for state and local grants that support firefighter positions and local emergency management personnel, force furloughs for patrol agents who secure our borders, and food inspectors who make certain that the food we eat is safe.”
Villaraigosa, who has been the subject of speculation for several months as a potential member of Obama’s cabinet, called on federal legislators to reach an agreement soon.
“We need Congress to put aside their partisan bickering, and put the needs of the American people first. The devastating effects of these cuts will only worsen as the full impact is felt throughout the country over the coming months,” he implored.
“We cannot imperil our nation’s recovery through indiscriminate cuts. Congress needs to do its job and get to a compromise immediately.”
Rubin said those who fly into Santa Monica Airport in private airplanes should be cautious of using the airfield if the tower does close next month. He feels there could be visual hazards that could make arrivals unsafe.
“VIPs who use (the airport) shouldn’t pressure their pilots to land when marine layer conditions roll in,” he said. “They should land elsewhere. Without a tower to help them, I fear the unthinkable.”