Travel and Beaches
Budget talks may ground traffic control at small Florida airports
TAMPA - One week after automatic budget cuts set in motion by Washington, commercial flights still operate without delay and passenger security lines move at their normal pace. But uncertainty has set in about control tower staffing at smaller airports. The Federal Aviation Administration has listed 189 contractor-operated air traffic control centers that could be closed as early as April 7, with 20 in Florida including Albert Whitted in St. Petersburg and Lakeland Linder Regional. Overnight shifts could be eliminated at another five larger Florida airport towers, including Jacksonville, Palm Beach, Daytona Beach, Pensacola and a field in Fort Lauderdale.Also drawing attention are the prospects for eliminating overnight shifts at another 67 U.S. airports, including three that host NORAD air defense alert sites for interceptor aircraft in the New York-Philadelphia, San Francisco and Detroit areas. Also on the block are overnight shifts in Atlantic City, N.J., Fresno, Calif., and Toledo, Ohio, all of them centers where Air National Guard F-16s are on 24-hour alert to check unidentified aircraft. “The continental U.S. North American Aerospace Defense region recently became aware of the FAA announcement regarding sequestration and is working with its partners to determine the appropriate course of action and mitigation,” said Master Sgt. Jerry D. Harlan, 1st Air Force manager of public affairs at Tyndall Air Force Base in Panama City. The Air Force is “confident that working with our partners we will develop appropriate solutions.”Not as confidant is Richard Lesniak, manager of Albert Whitted Airport, owned by the city of St. Petersburg. The airport’s control tower is operated by personnel under contract with Robinson Aviation Inc., who work 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. and handle 85,000 operations a year from single-engine, propeller-driven planes to small jets. The airport would remain open if the tower were closed but pilots would be responsible for monitoring each other in landing patterns and on takeoffs, similar to the current protocol at Peter O. Knight Airport on Davis Islands. “To me, sequestration was a political thing between Democrats and Republicans and the White House and Congress,” Lesniak said. “Now there’s a stalemate that no one expected to happen. “With each passing day it’s really getting scary.” If a political solution to sequestration is not reached shortly, it’s possible passengers will see the impact within weeks. The reason for a lag is a 30-day notification requirement before federal employees can be furloughed. “We are working with our federal partners to monitor any impacts of sequestration in the coming weeks,” said Janet Zink, Tampa International Airport spokeswoman. “We are in the midst of spring break. We are seeing about 10 percent more daily passengers than during a typical day. Security checkpoint wait times are about 20 minutes, which is normal for this time of year.” Flights at St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport continue to operate normally, but hours of operation for U.S. Customs and Border Protection will see cuts immediately, said airport spokeswoman Michele Routh said. Customs will be available to serve Canadian flights 8:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday. “Customs clearance after hours and during the weekend will only be offered if an inspector at Tampa International is available to come over and it doesn’t require overtime,” Routh said. “The only exception to this rule will be air ambulance flights.” The Transportation Security Administration employs about 900 people, including part-time workers, at the three commercial airports in the Tampa Bay area. “As sequestration takes effect, travelers can expect to see lines and wait times increase as reductions to overtime and the inability to backfill positions for attrition begin to occur this month,” the TSA said in a statement. Sequestration, or automatic budget cuts, mandate a hiring freeze for the TSA, which is expected to add 1,000 job vacancies by Memorial Day weekend and up to 2,600 vacancies by the end of the fiscal year. The result, the administration said in a statement, may be a doubling of the current 30- to 40-minute waits during peak hours at the busiest airports.