SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — About two-thirds of the flights at the Provo Airport are piloted by students enrolled at one of the country's largest flight schools at a nearby university.
Since 2005, federally paid air traffic controllers have made sure the student pilots stay safe as they hone their skills in the same airspace with dozens of other planes flown by veteran pilots.
But that setup is in serious jeopardy.
Airports in Provo and Ogden are in line to be closed as the Federal Aviation Administration looks to save more than $600 million due to automatic federal budget cuts that went into effect this month.
The two Utah air traffic control towers are on a list of 238 facilities with low traffic volumes that are being considered for closure by the FAA. The agency is expected to choose about 100 towers from the list for closure in a decision expected next week.
The prospect of shuttering services at the control towers in Provo and Ogden has airport managers highly concerned about the safety of pilots who use the landing strips.
Without air traffic controllers, the FAA says the airports will remain open but pilots would be responsible for their own safety by talking to each other, instead of the tower.
Taking away air tower controllers at the Provo airport would be like stripping stop lights from a busy street intersection filled with student drivers, said Provo airport manager Steve Gleason.
"You put them (student pilots) in an uncontrolled air space and mix them in with fast moving jets, there are bound to be some conflicts," Gleason said.
Air traffic controllers in Ogden monitor three flight patterns at different altitudes arriving to and departing from Ogden, Salt Lake International and Hill Air Force Base, said Ogden airport manager Royal Eccles.
"The air space is very congested above me, and it works out beautifully with the tower," Eccles said. "The tower provides a safe and efficient flow of air traffic through a very dense area."
Without controllers monitoring the flights, Eccles shutters to think of what could happen. With the Hill Air Force Base within four miles, Eccles even goes as far as to call the potential closure a "national security issue." Hill is a base for a F-16s and it will soon be a base for F-35s.
The FAA declined comment about the Provo and Ogden airports, referring to general comments made about the cuts by agency leaders in letters and congressional testimony.
FAA top officials have emphasized that safety is a top priority, but that the budget cuts will have a substantial impact on the air system and travelers. The FAA is also considering implementing mandatory furloughs for most of its 47,000 employees and plan to cut overnight services at 60 air control towers.
In Provo, Gleason said they are exploring a host of possibilities to pay the controllers if the federal funds are cut. He declined to say how many air traffic controllers work there, but said the tower is staffed from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. all week.
But in Ogden, Eccles said there are no alternate funding sources to pay for the five air traffic controllers that staff the Ogden tower to keep it open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. all week.
The airports serve as diversionary airports for Salt Lake International Airport in inclement weather, though commercial airlines sometimes just fly to Las Vegas, Boise or Twin Falls, Idaho.
Eccles points out that the Idaho Falls airport control tower is also on the FAA's possible closure list. If both small airports are stripped of control towers, the closest airport to Salt Lake would be Boise - more than 325 miles away. The Ogden airport is only about 40 miles north of Salt Lake City.
Provo and Ogden serve mainly private flights, though each has two Allegiant Air flights a week. Allegiant Air is waiting to see what happens with the closures before it announces any changes, said spokeswoman Jessica Wheeler. Wheeler said the airline is looking at contingency plans in case the control towers are closed.
Eccles said closing the tower in Ogden would handcuff any potential expansion of commercial flights from Allegiant Air or any other airline. That, in turn, would have detrimental impacts on the economy.
Airports were given the chance to send letters to the FAA making a case for why they should avoid closure, and both Ogden and Provo did that. Neither Eccles or Gleason knows what to expect.
"We always plan for the worst-case scenario so we're trying to get ready for if they close the tower," Gleason said. "But we're always hopeful that they'll come up with a solution to all budget problems."
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