ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Santa Fe, Roswell and Hobbs could lose their airport control towers because of federal budget cuts, raising questions about whether commercial airlines would continue flights that the communities have fought so hard to secure.
Officials with American and United airlines, which service the small airports, have declined to comment on whether such cuts would impact service.
Towers at the three small airports, as well as the general aviation Double Eagle Airport in west Albuquerque, are on a list of nearly 200 being eyed for possible closure if across-the-board federal budgets cuts that took effect Friday stay in place. The FAA is expected to announce the final cut next week.
FAA and airport managers say any final decision on whether to maintain service to tower-less airports lies with the carriers. A spokesman for American Airlines, which services Santa Fe and Roswell, said it's "too soon to discuss" that question. United, which flies to Hobbs, declined to comment, referring questions to an industry group in Washington, which called the issue "premature" as no tower furloughs would occur before April 7.
But Albuquerque air traffic controller and local controller's union representative Andreas Sanchez said he doubts airlines could maintain schedules such as those to Santa Fe, which has daily American Eagle flights between Dallas and Los Angeles as well as Great Lakes airline service to Clovis and Denver.
While commercial flights do routinely land at the Santa Fe and Roswell airports during off hours when the tower is closed, Sanchez said the risks increase when pilots have "to take their mind off instruments and the cockpit" to communicate with and look for other aircraft.
Santa Fe airport manager Jim Montman said the airport gets much busier during the hours that the tower is currently manned by air traffic controllers.
"We have a big mix of different types of aircraft, high-speed military jets, helicopters, general aviation, people doing pilot training, the airlines," said Montman. "We have as many as 100 operating in an hour and 400 in a day. At times, it can become a very, very busy airport."
Operating an airport without controllers, he said, raises the risk for midair collisions "or some sort of incident where somebody lands on the wrong runway. Or have an incident that requires a response by emergency crews that would normally start in the control tower. ... That critical link is gone."
Santa Fe Mayor David Coss said officials are concerned about what long-term impact a tower closure could have on the capital city and tourism destination that has just in the past few years won back commercial jet service with the American flights to Dallas and Los Angeles. And it is expecting United service to Denver to begin in May.
"We've worked very hard for about 10 years — since 9/11— to get (commercial jet service) back," said Coss. "Our master plan called for three commercial airlines. We were finally going to achieve that this year."