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Federal Budget Cuts May Endanger Air Safety

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Gary-Nelson-600x450 Gary Nelson
Gary Nelson has been a member of the CBS4 News team since Septem...
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MIAMI (CBS4) – At Opa-locka airport in North Miami-Dade, tenants waited years for a new control tower to replace the old, short, cramped one. Now that they have the new tower, they might not be able to continue using it.

The Federal Aviation Administration, in order to cut $600 million from its budget because of the so-called sequester, plans to close the tower at Opa-locka and the one at North Perry Airport in Broward. The two airports accommodate upwards of a quarter of a million take-offs and landings a year. The FAA plans to close 100 air traffic control towers nationwide as of April 1st.

Critics of the closures said that will leave thousands of pilots on their own, flying on a wing and a prayer. Instead of being guided by air traffic controllers hundreds of feet up, scanning the skies and watching aircraft on radar, pilots will be guided by their eyes only.

Miami-Dade Aviation department spokesperson Marc Henderson told CBS4 News Monday the tower closures could jeopardize lives.

“It’s going to create somewhat of a concern,” Henderson said. “There isn’t any way to sugar coat it.”

Miami-Dade Fire/Rescue and the U.S. Coast Guard fly life-saving missions out of facilities at Opa-locka. It is help that could be delayed by lack of air traffic control, according to one Coast Guard source who asked not to be named.

Air charter company owner Curtis Romero called the budget cuts misguided.

“How much is a life of a person worth,” Romero asked.

If Romero, owner of Noble Air Charter, is concerned about safety, he is also concerned about jobs, and not just those of the air traffic controllers slated to be laid off. Many charter and corporate aircraft are not allowed to operate in and out of airports that don’t have control towers for insurance reasons or because of corporate rules.

Romero said if the Opa-locka tower closes as scheduled he would have to relocate, but added that might not be possible.

“I don’t know if we can afford to move. So it might put us out of business,” he said.

Fewer planes would mean less aircraft maintenance being performed, less fuel being sold and would amount to fewer people working, according to Romero and Henderson.

Ironically, Miami-Dade and the federal government spent $12 million building the new, state of the art tower at Opa-locka. It has been operating for just four months.

Ten controllers man the Opa-locka tower and a similar number work at the North Perry facility. They are employed by a contractor paid by the FAA and receive salaries comparable to government-paid air traffic controllers.

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