By Anna Louie Sussman
New York, March 18 (Reuters) - When landing a plane amid birds, bobcats or alligators, it helps to have an air traffic controller on the lookout.
But many small airports across the United States face losing this extra pair of eyes starting April 1, as budget cuts at the Federal Aviation Administration threaten closure of 189 air traffic control towers.
Controllers direct planes to prevent collisions. In places like the Naples Airport in southwest Florida, a busy hub for vacationers that is among those threatened with a tower closure, they also choreograph the delicate dance of aircraft and animals, said Executive Director Ted Soliday.
"If an animal runs across the runway, they'll see it first. Alligators, they take a little while to get across the runway. Bobcats, the little dog thing, coyotes. If they see a flock of birds, they'll alert a pilot: 'Caution, birds at your one o'clock," Soliday said.
The planned closures, which will slice up to $50 million from the FAA's $16 billion budget this fiscal year, are part of $85 billion in across the board government cuts that went into effect on March 1, slashing spending at federal agencies and hitting programs from defense to medical research.
The FAA will also find savings through a planned hiring freeze, cuts to other contracts, and furloughs of its 47,000 employees. These actions are expected to reduce the number of manned runways at the larger airports staffed by the FAA, leading to delays of up to 90 minutes during peak periods.
Without air-traffic controllers, small airports typically rely on pilots to alert each other by radio to their positions and to sequence landings. While that system works at less-trafficked runways, directors at busier airports worry about the risk of accidents without their control towers.
Runways are like busy road intersections that need working traffic lights, said Brian Hughes, who oversees Trenton-Mercer airport in New Jersey, another airport facing tower closure. The airport is used by low-cost carrier Frontier Airlines, as well as corporate jets from pharmaceutical companies Merck and Pfizer.
"If the traffic signal goes out," he said, "you're going to have a certain amount of accidents and road rage."
Safety will not be compromised by the closures, the FAA said adding the towers were chosen to affect the lowest number of passengers.
"We're not going to do anything that isn't safe," FAA Administrator Michael Huerta told a congressional hearing last month. But "if you don't have a tower on the facility, it is certainly going to be less efficient."
Citing dangers from wildlife strikes to bioterrorism, as well as economic losses, airport directors and municipal officials have scrambled to try to convince the FAA to keep their towers operational. An FAA spokeswoman said the agency had received a "heavy volume" of letters.
This week, the agency will release the final list of towers slated for closure from April.
FLIGHT SCHOOLS TO CORPORATE JETS
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 itself, another 251 are staffed by three private companies: Midwest Air Traffic Control Service, Robinson Aviation (RVA) Inc, and Serco Inc, through a public-private program called the FAA Contract Tower Program (FCT).
All 189 towers targeted for closure are FCT-operated, and 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.
At last month's congressional hearing, the FAA's Huerta said that because much of the Transportation Department budget is exempt from cuts, the FAA is shouldering 60 percent of sequestration-driven reductions for the department, he said, a total hit to its budget of $627 million.
Cancelling the FCT contracts would save $45 million to $50 million through Sept. 30, the end of fiscal year 2013.
The affected airports serve municipalities ranging in size from the small city of Wheeling, West Virginia to the suburbs of such major U.S. cities as Chicago, Boston and Detroit.
Most pilots will be able to handle the loss of control towers at smaller airports by being extra alert, said Robert Worthington, president of the United States Pilots Association, which has a membership of around 3,000 recreational or private pilots.
"For the typical general aviation pilot, it is probably not going to create a real big problem," he said. "What it will do is probably cause some inconvenience."
But others worry accidents - and insurance rates - will rise, and the trend could frighten away the general public from recreational flying. In interviews and letters to the FAA, many airport directors and pilots cited safety as their main concern about the closures.
"CEREAL CITY" AFFECTED
In Battle Creek, Michigan, known as "Cereal City" for the headquarters of food giant Kellogg Co, the W.K. Kellogg airport also faces the loss of its tower. That airfield is used not just by the company but by the Battle Creek Air National Guard, Duncan Aviation, a private jet maintenance company with more than 600 employees, and the College of Aviation at Western Michigan University, one of the largest in the country, Battle Creek Transportation Director Lawrence Bowron said.
The resulting mix of aircraft - corporate jets, military aircraft, and slower planes used by student pilots - makes having a tower important, said Chad Piper, Kellogg's director of aviation.
"We are professionals on our end," he said. "But on the other end, they are student pilots, trying to learn, and there are mistakes. We have higher risks than other airports."
Hank Kelly, a private pilot whose single-engine Cessna plane is based at Dutchess County airport, about 85 miles (137 kms) north of New York City, said the tower controller is a ringmaster who guides fliers through a complex choreography.
"It's kind of a solitary experience landing a plane," he said. "But you're dependent on that person sitting in that tower."