Updated at 3:28 p.m. March 22, 2013
The control towers at Brown Field and Ramona Airport are targeted for closure next month, and county Supervisor Dianne Jacob called the Federal Aviation Administration’s decision on Ramona Airport a “disaster in the making.”
Speaking by phone to Jake Tapper on CNN, the East County supervisor said the federal government is putting the lives of 3 million people in the region at risk—given the tower’s function in helping fight wildfires such as ones that devastated the county in 2003 and 2007.
“This is a foolish, foolish move,” Jacob told CNN after the FAA announced its decision that 149 federal contract towers, including the one at Ramona Airport, would close starting April 7.
Airport traffic control towers at Otay Mesa’s Brown Field and ones in Pacoima, Fullerton and Riverside also will close.
The closures come as part of the agency’s sequestration implementation plan. According to a news release, 24 federal contract towers will remain open, as closure of them would “have a negative impact on the national interest.”
“It’s a great example of how the feds can’t get their budget act together,” said Jacob, a Republican. “This is a public-safety issue.”
She recalled that the Ramona tower was unstaffed in the 1995 midair collision of two U.S. Forest Service planes that killed three people.
The airport’s current tower was completed in 2003, according to the county. Cal Fire’s airport-based personnel respond to about 450 calls annually and are responsible for protecting more than 1.4 million acres, which includes some U.S. Forest Service land.
Brown Field is a general aviation airport and various types of aircraft operate from it, including private planes, air ambulance, cargo, fire rescue and law enforcement, according to the city of San Diego.
The FAA classified it a “reliever airport” for San Diego International Airport—Lindbergh Field.
An additional 16 federal contract towers under the “cost share” program will remain open because Congressional statute sets aside funds every fiscal year for these towers, the release said. These cost-share program funds are subject to sequestration but the required 5 percent cut will not result in tower closures.
Jacob urged residents last week to write to the FAA in regard to the closure, which the county learned about March 15.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said: “We heard from communities across the country about the importance of their towers and these were very tough decisions. Unfortunately we are faced with a series of difficult choices that we have to make to reach the required cuts under sequestration.”
Jacob earlier called the plan for control tower closures a “hatchet to the budget when they should be taking a scalpel” and maintained that the tower’s staff is “critical.”
FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said: “We will work with the airports and the operators to ensure the procedures are in place to maintain the high level of safety at non-towered airports.”
According to the FAA, the agency proposed to close 189 contract air traffic control towers in early March as part of its plan to meet the $637 million in cuts required under budget sequestration and announced that it would consider keeping open any of these towers if doing so would be in the national interest.
The national interest considerations included:
- Significant threats to national security as determined by the FAA in consultation with the Department of Defense or the Department of Homeland Security.
- Significant, adverse economic impact that is beyond the impact on a local community.
- Significant impact on multi-state transportation, communication or banking/financial networks.
- The extent to which an airport currently served by a contract tower is a critical diversionary airport to a large hub.
Some communities will elect to take part in FAA’s non-federal tower program and assume the cost of continued, on-site air traffic control services at their airport, according to the FAA.
The four-week phased closure of the 149 federal contract towers, including Ramona’s, will begin April 7.
In early March, the FAA proposed to close nearly 200 towers—including the structure at Hawthorne Municipal Airport—as part of its plan to meet
the $637 million in cuts required under budget sequestration.
However, the Hawthorne facility was saved after the FAA made the decision the closure would negatively impact the national interest.
Also on the saved list is Santa Monica Airport, which will be considered in a later round of cuts, according to the FAA.
The FAA said it was targeting towers at airports with less than 150,000 takeoffs and landings and less than 10,000 commercial flights a year.
—City News Service contributed to this report.