MILWAUKEE (AP) - Federal budget cuts could force overnight airport control towers in Milwaukee to go dark or trigger the closure of eight regional Wisconsin airports, leaving it up to pilots to coordinate their own landings.
The Federal Aviation Administration must cut $600 million under the automatic budget cuts that took effect March 1. Additional savings will come from furloughing FAA employees and other actions.
The agency will decide by March 18 which airports will lose tower services. The airports would remain open but pilots would have to coordinate takeoffs and landings among themselves via radio and visual contact, as they do now at night when the tower isn't open.
FAA officials sent a letter to airport managers this week saying their decisions would be based solely on the national interest and wouldn't take into account local community impacts.
Milwaukee's General Mitchell International Airport is among the 72 airports nationwide whose control towers could be shut down during late-night hours. Airport spokesman Harold Mester said any overnight shutdown would affect a few dozen cargo flights and smaller planes but it shouldn't affect passenger flights.
"We don't have any regularly scheduled airline flights from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m.," Mester said. He said the airport would remain open 24 hours a day, and that pilots have procedures for landing safely when no tower services are available.
Passenger flights could still end up arriving late if there were delays, Mester said. When asked what would happen to those flights he deferred to the FAA, which didn't immediately respond.
Airlines for America, a group that represents the nation's major airlines, noted that the FAA has procedures in place that allow airlines to safely land at airports that do not have staffed towers. Those procedures include diverting to other airports or allowing pilots to coordinate their own landings, as they are all trained to do.
The FAA said it will close 173 contract towers nationwide on April 7, while 16 others will close by the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30. The agency also is considering closure of 49 FAA-staffed control towers.
Airport officials have until Wednesday to submit arguments to the FAA for keeping their control tower open.
One of the major cargo carriers at Mitchell Airport is FedEx Express, which averages 450 to 500 flights per month there, spokesman Scott Fiedler said. Fiedle said FedEx is monitoring the situation and preparing contingency plans, but a tower closure wouldn't affect its ability to use the airport.
"We don't expect any impact to our service," he said.
In addition to the loss of overnight staffing in Milwaukee, Wisconsin could see control towers close altogether at smaller airports in Eau Claire, Janesville, Kenosha, La Crosse, Milwaukee, Mosinee, Oshkosh and Waukesha.
In some of those cases, the control tower in Minneapolis or elsewhere could guide planes to within about 5 miles of their destination. After that, pilots would coordinate with each other.
While airport officials agreed the practice is safe, they said a control tower can simplify the process, speeding up turnaround times and keeping flights secure.
"It's just like in a car, where you have anti-lock brakes, airbags and stability control, all working together to create a safe environment," said Clint Torp , the airport manager at La Crosse Municipal Airport. "The tower adds one more layer of safety."
Delta and American Airlines fly out of the La Crosse airport, and about 20 percent of the air traffic is military jets, Torp said. He said he was drafting a letter explaining to the FAA that cutting his airport's tower could make it harder to attract new airlines and could affect military operations.
He also wondered whether any closures would actually happen, speculating that the discussions in Washington were political grandstanding. But Charity Speich, his counterpart at the Chippewa Valley Regional Airport in Eau Claire, said she wasn't treating the FAA's warning as a bluff.
"The FAA has certainly indicated they are very serious about closures, and once they occur they will be final," she said. "I think it's hard to say for sure what's going to happen."
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
First responders helped ring in the holidays at the 45th annual Howard-Suamico Christmas Parade.
Christmas is just two and half weeks away, and kids and families are getting into the holiday spirit.
Single digit temps around the area caused problems in the Fox Valley Saturday morning.
The frigid temperatures forced some area communities to cancel their weekend Christmas celebrations. But New London braved the cold for its annual Holiday of Wonder Parade.
Maybe it's the weather. Maybe it's all of the injuries, but many Packers fans are saying "no thanks," to this weekend's Packers game.
With only a little snow on the ground in places, snowmobilers are ready for more. In the Lakewood area, trails are not yet open, but clubs are gearing up for an early start to the season.