Analyst speculates that 'fiscal cliff' could close St. Petersburg-Clearwater airport

Published Aug. 8, 2012

If America falls off the so-called "fiscal cliff" on Jan. 2, one of the first victims could be St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport.

The Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, speculated in a recent report that the airport could be one of six in Florida and 106 around the country that would have to shut down because the Federal Aviation Administration wouldn't be able to pay air traffic controllers.

If St. Petersburg-Clearwater International were to close, officials there said the bay area would take a big economic hit. According to a 2010 state report, the airport generated $924 million in economic activity and 8,200 jobs while serving more than 360,000 passengers.

"That is a catastrophic impact on so many different levels, it's just hard to believe that it will actually take place," said airport director Noah Lagos.

That's because the think tank's report is pure speculation at this point. But the analyst who came up with the list, Scott Lilly, a senior fellow at the think tank, said he was trying to show the potential future impact of the looming "fiscal cliff" facing the federal budget.

Under the budget law passed by Congress last year and signed by President Barack Obama, the nation faces automatic tax increases and deep spending cuts — barring another budget deal.

So Lilly applied the required 9 percent budget cut to an important agency: the FAA.

The law as written requires the FAA and other agencies to apply the cut across all divisions and departments, including personnel. It can't gouge one department inside the agency and leave the rest as they are.

"You have to get rid of 2,000 controllers in order to meet the cut Congress enacted," Lilly said.

So how would the FAA operate the nation's air traffic control system without 2,000 or so of its 15,000 air traffic controllers? Under Lilly's plan, Florida airports like St. Petersburg-Clearwater, Orlando Sanford International, Pensacola Regional, Sarasota Bradenton International, Tallahassee Regional and Daytona Beach International would be closed. But major hubs like Tampa, Miami and Orlando International would all stay open.

"I don't think even the budget shop at the FAA knows exactly what they're going to do," Lilly said. "We simply tried to go through this and figure out the best options that would allow you to cut back the amount you have to cut back while doing the least damage you could do."

Lagos called the Center for American Progress' report a "speculative document by an advocacy group." But he noted that the impact of closing St. Petersburg-Clearwater International would affect more than just commercial airline passengers. The Coast Guard also operates out of the airport.

He also believed some kind of budget deal will be made. The alternative — such as the impact on the country of closing 106 airports — would be unthinkable.

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"What happens in Washington, if they reach any kind of agreement, is beyond for me to speculate on," Lagos said. "But I just can't see that over 100 airports would lose the ability to have controllers."