The Federal Aviation Administration's plan to close air traffic control towers at six Oklahoma airports has aviation officials scrambling to preserve a system they say provides an essential layer of safety to the public.
Last week, the FAA provided details of its cost-saving proposal because of sequestration.
The tower closings would affect more than 200 facilities and communities across the U.S., including six in Oklahoma: Ardmore, Enid, Lawton, Norman, Wiley Post Airport in Oklahoma City and Stillwater. Those towers are set to close April 7, with the exception of Ardmore, which was given until Sept. 30.
Tulsa's Jones Riverside Airport was spared because it has more than 150,000 operations a year.
In addition, FAA officials said they will cut overnight shifts at the Will Rogers World Airport and Tulsa International Airport control towers, but no date for those changes has been given.
Pilots can take off and land at an airport without an air traffic control tower but must communicate with other aircraft to do so safely.
It would be like removing the traffic light from a busy Oklahoma City intersection and letting drivers fend for themselves, said Grayson Ardies, a pilot and airport safety inspector for the Oklahoma Aeronautics Commission.
“The pilots rely on professionals whose one task is to separate traffic and move traffic,” Ardies said.
“If he (the pilot) is now tasked with separating traffic while landing, the risk of something bad happening goes up.”
While many general aviation airports don't have an air traffic control tower, the proposed cuts affect major airports with commercial and military operations, which Ardies called uncharted territory.
Airports have until Wednesday to submit an appeal to the FAA, and the agency will announce a finalized list of closures March 20.
If put in place, the budget cuts will have a far-reaching impact across the aviation industry, airport officials said.
Insurance or corporate policies prohibit many corporate, military and commercial aircraft from flying to airports with uncontrolled airspace.
Pilot training programs at one of the state's busier general aviation airports, the University of Oklahoma's Max Westheimer Airport in Norman, may need to be scaled back, airport Director Walt Strong said. He added that the flight school will continue, but training flights will have to be spread out.