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Published: Monday, March 25, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Will Paine Field's tower go dark?

  • Matt Orn and his daughters, Kaitlin, 7 (left), and Rebecca, 3, look out at Paine Field and the air traffic control tower late Friday afternoon at the ...

    Mark Mulligan / The Herald

    Matt Orn and his daughters, Kaitlin, 7 (left), and Rebecca, 3, look out at Paine Field and the air traffic control tower late Friday afternoon at the Future of Flight Museum.

EVERETT -- The control tower at Paine Field -- which last year directed traffic for 105,000 flights of aircraft large and small -- could become a casualty of the federal budget sequester.
The airport's tower staff of about 15 survived the first round of cuts, announced Friday. Funding for 149 towers at small airports around the nation, including five in Washington state, will dry up starting April 7.
Towers on the chopping block in the state are at Olympia Regional Airport; Renton Municipal Airport; Felts Field in Spokane; Tacoma Narrows Airport; and the Yakima Air Terminal.
"I'm delighted we're not facing an imminent tower closure," Paine Field director Dave Waggoner said. "I don't think we're out of the woods yet."
Funding for Paine Field's tower still could be cut later in the year, according to U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., who has been communicating with the FAA on the matter. Officials with the aviation agency are not discussing the issue with the public.
Paine Field is owned and operated by Snohomish County but its control tower is staffed by the Federal Aviation Administration.
Paine Field hosts Boeing test and delivery flights; aircraft maintenance businesses; some military and corporate jets; and small, private planes.
If the airport were to lose air traffic control, pilots would have to communicate by radio to keep a safe distance from each other, Waggoner said.
"These procedures only work for general aviation airports without operations by large aircraft," he wrote in a letter to the FAA dated March 13. "The large aircraft fly different patterns and go twice the speed of small general aviation aircraft. Large aircraft leave a trail of wake turbulence that cannot be seen or detected, but can flip a small aircraft in an instant."
About 40 towers on the original closure list were spared. In a letter sent to airports on March 5, FAA air traffic official J. David Grizzle said decisions about which airports to spare from the cuts would be based strictly on "national interest."
In letters back to the FAA, Larsen and Waggoner trumpeted the importance of Paine Field as a hub for Boeing and other large aircraft operations.
"I just find it hard to fathom that with the number of large airplane operations in and out of Paine Field, combined with (small aircraft), that a tower closure is in the best interest of the local economy or the national interest," Larsen told The Herald.
Waggoner said Paine Field is in the FAA's top category of the nation's non-commercial airports. As an airport with a national designation -- as opposed to regional, local and basic -- Paine Field has "very high levels of activity with many jets and multiengine propeller aircraft," according to a 2012 FAA report on small airports.
The national average for the number of aircraft based at such airports is about 200, according to the report. Paine Field has more than 650, Waggoner said. Most are small private craft.
In his letter to the FAA, Larsen said national interest in the case of Paine Field includes the economy, especially Boeing.
"Closure of the air traffic control tower at Paine Field would significantly limit Paine Field's ability to support the cornerstone of the Pacific Northwest aviation economy and would hurt the national economy by impacting the operations of the country's largest exporter," Larsen wrote on March 6.
Michael Huerta, the national FAA boss, wrote back and told Larsen the agency has to find more than $600 million to cut from its budget through September. The FAA's total annual budget is about $15 billion, according to Larsen's office.
The threshold was set at airports with fewer than 150,000 total flights per year and fewer than 10,000 commercial flights.
Paine Field does not currently have passenger flights. Proposals by Allegiant Air of Las Vegas and Alaska Airlines of Seattle would bring more than 8,000 annual commercial flights to the airport by 2018, but this would still leave the airport below the threshold.
Of the airports proposed for cuts, 189 provide control tower staff through a contract with the FAA, while 49 -- including Paine Field -- are staffed directly by the agency.
The funding cuts announced Friday pertained only to contract towers. The others could come later in the year, with no date set.
The delay could work to Paine Field's advantage, Larsen said. Even if Paine Field's tower staff is designated for cuts, federal aviation labor rules would prevent the cuts from taking effect for a full year after the decision is made, Larsen said.
This could buy time for Congress and the president to agree on a new budget to replace the sequester plan, Larsen said.
The sequester is a set of automatic spending cuts agreed to by Congress in 2011 that are taking effect this year because no other agreement to address the federal deficit was reached. Larsen said the plan would cut $1.2 trillion in spending over 10 years.
Larsen is the ranking Democratic member on the House subcommittee on aviation. Because the sequester cuts are based on a previous Congressional agreement, however, they would not be subject to further Congressional approval.
Larsen said he'll keep working on the issue.
"We're making our best case," he said.

Bill Sheets: 425-339-3439; sheets@heraldnet.com.

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