Napa County Airport’s air traffic control tower may be shuttered due to federal budget cuts, but airport officials say the impact to operations will likely be minimal.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) said last week that Napa’s traffic control tower could be included on a list of more than 100 towers that will cease operations if the budget cuts tied to sequestration in Congress hit later this week.
Airport Manager Martin Pehl said the tower operates from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily. After it closes for the day, pilots continue to fly in and out by communicating with other pilots rather than with the tower.
Pehl said if the tower is closed, Napa County Airport will be “uncontrolled,” which is common for smaller airports.
“There’s well-established procedures for pilots to communicate with each other,” Pehl said. “Most airports out there are uncontrolled.”
Lawmakers in Congress have until Friday to work out a deal that avoids sequestration — the $85 billion in automatic federal spending cuts that will take effect March 1 if legislators do not act to prevent them.
In preparation for the cuts, the FAA announced that it would close more than 100 air traffic control towers with fewer than 150,000 flights or 10,000 commercial flights annually. The closures would start in April.
Napa County Airport fits that billing. It has about 60,000 flight operations annually — which is about half the total from when Japan Airlines’ flight school was still operating — of private planes and corporate jets. It’s not large enough to handle commercial passenger flights.
Pehl said losing the tower, which opened in the mid-1960s, would be more difficult if the Japan Airlines program were still going because its inexperienced trainees were flying in and out. The company ceased operating in Napa County in 2010, although the airport is seeking a replacement tenant.
Pehl said he has not had any official communication with the FAA regarding the status of Napa’s control tower. The tower has 12 staff members, he said.
“We’re pawns in the game, like the rest of the airports,” Pehl said.
U.S. Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, criticized the automatic cuts, saying in a statement that they would harm the economy and cost 225,000 jobs in California.
“If sequestration goes into effect, we will see arbitrary, harsh, across-the-board budget cuts that Republicans, Democrats, economists and business leaders all say would send our economy into a tailspin and cause essential government services, like air traffic control, to close,” Thompson said in the statement.
Gary Wooton, a private pilot and member of the airport’s land-use commission, said he doesn’t expect much of an impact on the airport’s operations if the tower is closed.
“Those of us that are private pilots are used to going into airports that don’t have towers,” Wooton said. “I don’t suspect that there will be a significant difference.”
Wooton said having a tower makes landing and taking off “more comfortable,” but if it does close he said pilots will be able to get clearances from the Oakland airport and use the same instruments in communicating with other pilots safely.
“It’s always good to have another set of eyes looking out for you,” Wooton said. “We would very much like to see it open.”
Pehl said airport officials will have to wait to see if a budget deal can be reached, and whether Napa’s control tower can survive the chopping block if not.
“My hope is that the federal government will be able to work its way through this and we’ll be able to still have a control tower,” Pehl said.