FAA closing control towers at Ithaca, Griffiss due to sequestration cuts

Two control towers in Central New York will close under sequestration cuts, the FAA announced on Friday.

Rome (WSYR-TV) - A charter flight from Atlantic City touched down in Rome early Friday evening, with help from air traffic controllers nearby. The tower hovering over Griffiss International Airport could be empty in a matter of weeks as the federal government implements a series of sequester cuts. The FAA announced it will close 189 contract air traffic control towers beginning April 7, 2013, in order to save $637 million dollars.

"I was an air traffic controller in the Air Force for 25 years. Obviously, having air traffic controllers controlling the airplane is a lot safer," said Sam D'Urso, manager at Million Air Rome. "We're an extra set of eyes and ears for the pilots and we can help sequence aircraft into the airport."

Today, D'Urso runs a company that fuels up planes landing in Rome, a job that relies on steady traffic from small charters and large military jets sharing the same runway.

Two of the biggest companies at the airport are maintenance and repair operators. Oneida County Executive Anthony Picente says MidAir and Premier Aviation employ nearly 500 people combined. Both companies agreed to do business at Griffiss with the understanding that an air traffic control tower would be in operation.

Picente says six people currently work in the Rome tower and he's exploring options to keep it staffed with or without help from the federal government.

"We have been having discussions on commercial flights here. I mean this puts a wrench in that. So, we're trying to take steps toward growing our economy. The US Senators come into town and talk about how we need to build up the economy with all the planes and yet, we strike a blow here," Picente said. "It is a step backward, so now, we have to pick up the pieces."

Picente and his aviation team were informed of the cuts through an e-mail, the same way Ithaca's airport manager found out he's losing his air traffic controllers.

"The amount of money involved here is pocket change in the greater scheme of things and the FAA budget is huge," argued Robert Nicholas, manager at Ithaca Tompkins Regional Airport. "There are ways of saving money that don't involve shutting down towers and inconveniencing people."

Nicholas worries the FAA cuts across the country could cause a series of delays or flight cancellations as more pilots rely on their own judgment when departing or landing at airports. He has been in touch with local representatives, hoping the decision could be reversed, particularly since his airport supports business at Cornell University. Airport managers were told the FAA based their decisions on the national impact of each closure.

The control tower cuts come after the FAA and Oneida County pumped more than 70-million dollars into Griffiss airport for revitalization after the military base closed, according to a statement on Oneida County's website. Picente says the investment created an economic engine that shouldn't be left to stall with sequestration.

"We rebuilt something that the federal government took away from us and now {they are taking} a tower that is essential to the growth of this facility and this community," Picente said. "They hit us again and it is disturbing. It is disheartening."

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