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.
The airport has 56,000 to 57,000 operations a year and saw its traffic increase by 9.5 percent last year.
When the University of Notre Dame football team was in town to play the Sooners last fall, there were at least 200 aircraft at the airport, which ended up turning some pilots away and running out of fuel, Strong said.
“How do you do that without a control tower in place?” he questioned.
“Not safely, fast or efficiently.”
Air service at Will Rogers World Airport could be impacted, as well, said Karen Carney, an airport spokeswoman.
Cutting the air traffic control tower's overnight shifts would affect the airport's first departure, scheduled at 5:30 a.m., and late flights, which arrive from 12:30 to 1 a.m.
Also, nightly airfield inspections and snow operations aren't allowed in an uncontrolled environment, she said.
If the control tower at Wiley Post Airport is closed, pilots may instead attempt to use Will Rogers World Airport, which could increase traffic and cause delays.
Commercial flights likely will continue at Lawton-Fort Sill Regional Airport, where American Eagle is the sole air carrier.
But military operations and charter flights could be impacted, airport Director Barbara McNally said.
Currently, the airport's control tower operates from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily.
McNally is appealing the FAA's decision.
“If the whole point of the FAA is safety ... you're taking a key piece of the safety of the national airspace system out,” she said of the proposal.
Of the 238 air traffic control towers set for closure nationwide, 189 are part of the FAA's contract tower program, meaning they are staffed by nonfederal employees.
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Muskogee, last week asked the FAA to reconsider. He suggested alternative cuts that could save money yet protect the safety of the flying public, such as canceling upcoming conferences, freezing nonessential hiring and reducing funding for several low-priority programs.