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Bangor Airport Officials Prepare for 'Worst-Case' Scenario
04/25/2013   Reported By: Jay Field

Maine U.S. Sen. Susan Collins is co-sponsoring a bill that would halt the furloughs of air traffic controllers. The furloughs, which are part of the package of federal buget cuts known as sequestration, have caused thousands of flight delays at key U.S. airports, including Chicago's O'Hare, LAX in Los Angeles and Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. Officials at Bangor International Airport, meantime, are keeping a wary eye on the debate over sequestration, which may still force the loss of an overnight shift at Bangor's air traffic control tower. Jay Field reports.

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Bangor Airport Officials Preparing for Worst-Case Listen
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Communication from the Bangor tower gets piped into the airport's command and control center over a public address system, round the clock.

"Generally, it's a daily contact with the tower to kind of coordinate schedules and aircraft arrivals and departures," says Tony Caruso, the airport director in Bangor. Flight delays due to air traffic controller furloughs haven't trickled down to airports like Bangor yet. But small airfields have another sequestration-related headache looming on the horizon.

"If they do close or reduce the hours, you know, in the Bangor tower, we're still unsure, or unclear, as to what those hours would be," Caruso says, "you know, whether it's a midnight to 5:00 a.m. or 10:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m. - we're still unsure."

For now, the FAA has put off a plan to reduce operating hours, or close towers altogether, at 149 small airports, including Bangor, until June. But Caruso and his staff are still planning for a worst-case scenario. The airport has shelled out $20,000 dollars to install pilot-contolled runway lights. If the tower is left unmanned, the pilot of an approaching aircraft will be able to illuminate the runway lights by flipping on their cockpit microphone.

A deal could still be reached to head off the tower closures. But Caruso says if no such deal is reached, there are compelling reasons why Bangor should be spared, including the role of the Maine Air National Guard Refueling Wing at BIA.

"Bangor serves as a port of entry," Caruso says. "We have customs and border protection available here 24/7. Bangor has been designated through the Department of Homeland Security - we are a TSA-designated diversion point for emergency-type situations. So for those three reasons, any reduction in hours would certainly have a significant negative effect."

Earlier this month, all four members of Maine's congressional delegation sent a joint letter to U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and FAA Administrator Michael Huerta asking that Bangor's tower remained staffed 24 hours a day.

"These are simply irresponsible cuts," says Republican Sen. Susan Collins. Collins criticized the recent furlough of air traffic controllers - and the potential tower closures and elimination of nighttime shifts - on the floor of the U.S. Senate Thursday morning.

Collins has introduced legislation to put an end to the furloughs that have delayed thousands of flights nationwide since the beginning of the week. Under the bill, Secretary LaHood would be given the authority to transfer $253 million from the FAA's operations budget to keep controllers in the towers full time.

"This is a one-time shift," Collins said. "There would also be sufficient funds to fully fund, and continue operating, the contract tower programs."

Collins' bill has the support of some Democratic colleagues, and the Obama administration says it's willing to consider the idea. Transportation Sec. Ray LaHood was a guest on Wednesday's Diane Rehm radio show.

"If Congress passes the ability for flexibility to move money around - for example, to move it out of the airport improvement fund in order to relieve these furloughs - we would certainly look at that," LaHood said. "We would take a serious look at it and we would consider it."

The U.S. Senate is considering at least one other bill that would end the furloughs that began this week. and get controllers back on the job.



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