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Fight Over Federal Budget Could Close Airport Towers

Joe Moore
Valley Public Radio

Airports in Fresno and Bakersfield could be forced to close if lawmakers in Washington D.C. can't reach a deal on deficit reduction in the coming months, according to a new analysis released today by a Washington D.C. think tank. 

The report from the Center For American Progress says if a deal isn't reached between the White House and congressional Republicans by January 2, 2013, mandatory across-the-board cuts at all federal agencies could have a big impact on the FAA. The agency, which employs the nation's air traffic controllers could face a $1.35 billion cut in its 2013 budget if that scenario plays out. 

The report's author, Scott Lily, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress says that small airports would likely suffer the most. He says his analysis suggests up to 106 small airports, including Fresno Yosemite International and Bakersfield's Meadows Field could be at risk.

"Of the two hundred or so airports that are staffed by FAA controllers, fewer than 100 [airports] account for 95 percent of all passenger boardings. And that mean that if you want to try to reduce the number of controllers in the least disruptive way, you have to start trimming down the number of staff in the smaller airports, and  basically close a lot of these airports," says Lily.

The FAA employs 32 air traffic controllers in Fresno and 24 in Bakersfield. A spokesperson for the Fresno Yosemite International Airport said that it's still too early to tell what the impact would be to air service in Fresno if Congress and the President cannot reach a deal. 

The story actually dates back to the bipartisan deal that raised the nation's debt ceiling last summer. As part of the compromise between House Republican and the White House, Congress passed the Deficit Control Act of 2011, which would reduce the deficit by an estimated $2.1 trillion over the next decade. The so-called congressional "super committee" was charged with coming up with $1.2 trillion in specific cuts, but because they failed to reach an agreement, automatic cuts to all federal programs will kick in next year, unless Congress acts.

The law requiring the automatic cuts also requires that all programs be cut an equal amount, so Scott Lily says even cutting other non-essential FAA programs isn't an option. 

"The law that was passed by the congress last summer doesn't do that. It says you have to take 9 percent out of that and you have take 9 percent out of the salaries of the 15,000 air traffic controllers. So the FAA really has no option but to cut those controllers," says Lily.

Lawmakers from both parties, as well as President Obama have voiced concerns over the cuts, especially the impact they would have on the military. In May, a bill from Republican Paul Ryan passed the House that would exempt the military from the cuts, and would instead cut funding for Medicaid and food stamps. And in late July, another bill passed the House that would require the White House to detail its plans for cuts if no deal is reached.

Joe Moore is the President and General Manager of KVPR / Valley Public Radio. He has led the station through major programming changes, the launch of KVPR Classical and the COVID-19 pandemic. Under his leadership the station was named California Non-Profit of the Year by Senator Melissa Hurtado (2019), and won a National Edward R. Murrow Award for investigative reporting (2022).
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