ST. PETERSBURG — Despite sharp objections that the skies above Pinellas County will be made more dangerous, the Federal Aviation Administration announced Friday that it will move forward with its plan to shut down the air traffic control tower at the city's downtown airport.
Albert Whitted Airport — which will not be a "controlled" airport for the first time since the 1960s — is one of 149 facilities that will be closed at small airports around the country starting early next month. The FAA is being forced to trim $637 million from its budget this fiscal year as part of across-the-board spending cuts known as sequestration, which went into effect March 1.
"It doesn't mean planes are going to start raining out of the sky," said Rich Lesniak, the airport manager. "But certainly the risk gets tremendously increased."
The agency said it had no choice but to subject most of its 47,000 employees, including tower controllers, to periodic furloughs and to close facilities at small airports with lighter traffic.
Lesniak isn't buying it.
He believes the highly visible closures are the result of the political war being waged between President Barack Obama and Congress.
"If the FAA really took out their scalpel and looked at their budgets," he said, the agency could have made cuts in ways the public would never have noticed.
"Instead, they took out an ax," he said. "This is all scare tactics."
Seven people who work in the tower will lose their jobs.
Without them, pilots will now have to coordinate takeoffs and landings among themselves over a shared radio frequency under procedures that all pilots are trained to carry out.
If Albert Whitted were in a rural area, Lesniak said, the tower might not be as critical. But in densely populated Pinellas, its loss could cause significant problems.
The airport had 86,477 takeoffs and landings last year, but its tower staff conducted nearly 100,000 operations because so many planes that don't use the airport still pass through its airspace.
The controllers have long supported planes flying to and from St. Pete-Clearwater International, Tampa International Airport and MacDill Air Force Base.
Jack Tunstill, who has flown planes for 33 years, fears more out-of-town pilots using the St. Petersburg airport will inadvertently fly into MacDill's airspace because the Albert Whitted controllers will no longer be there to guide them around it.
"The tower is that second set of eyes that's calling out traffic," he said. "That's not going to be there now."
Ironically, the airport got a replacement tower just two years ago, built with $1 million in stimulus money and another $2.1 million in FAA funding.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report. John Woodrow Cox can be reached at [email protected]