The Federal Aviation Administration plans to close five air traffic control towers in Maryland — among 149 nationwide — to comply with across-the-board budget cuts mandated by Congress, a move that could clog operations at BWI Marshall Airport.
Even though the tower at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport is not among the closings, the FAA decision to shut down one at Martin State Airport in Baltimore County could lead to more flights using the larger airport. In turn, that could lead to flight delays for travelers.
"Martin is our fifth runway. It's our reliever," said Paul Wiedefeld, who manages both BWI and Martin. "We try to get slower general aviation traffic over there so we can maintain commercial flow at BWI. It's a congestion issue, and it couldn't come at a worse time for us."
BWI is halfway through a $350 million runway rehabilitation project to bring all of its runways into compliance with federal safety standards by 2015. The work requires runways to close periodically.
"It's that much more stress on the system," Wiedefeld said. "Clearly this will have a ripple effect here."
Other Maryland airport towers slated to close are Frederick Municipal Airport, which also siphons general traffic from BWI; Easton/Newnam Field in Easton; Hagerstown Regional; and Salisbury-Ocean City Wicomico Regional. Combined with Martin, they handled 342,441 commercial and private flights last year.
The shutdowns will be carried out over a four-week period, beginning April 7. Some worry it could affect flight safety at those airports.
"We heard from communities across the country about the importance of their towers, and these were very tough decisions," said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. "Unfortunately, we are faced with a series of difficult choices that we have to make to reach the required cuts under sequestration."
The FAA was required to cut $600 million from its nearly $48 billion budget between March 1 and the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30. In addition to closing towers, the agency has told its 47,000 employees, including 14,700 controllers, they will be furloughed one or two days every two weeks.
In the weeks leading up to the announcement, LaHood warned of "painful" consequences, including canceled flights and delays of up to 90 minutes at peak times as staffing cuts reduce the ability of controllers to handle traffic volume.
Towers targeted by the FAA were at airports with fewer than 150,000 operations a year and fewer than 10,000 commercial operations. Most of them were staffed by contract workers rather than FAA employees.
Closing towers does not mean closing airports. Pilots can rely on guidance from staffed FAA facilities or can use a common radio frequency to warn of their landing approach or takeoff, said Steve Hedges of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, which is based in Frederick.
But the decision puts an unknown number of controllers on the unemployment line and, Hedges said, it undermines general aviation, an industry still attempting to rebound from the recession.
For residents who rely on Hagerstown and Salisbury-Ocean City Wicomico Regional Airport for commercial airline connections, there's uncertainty about whether the handful of flights can continue. Salisbury's airport also is the Delmarva Peninsula's distribution center for FedEx, handling six flights a day.
Wiedefeld said he's not certain how the closures will play out or even if they will.
"I wouldn't be surprised to see pressure on the FAA to reconsider. I think this has a ways to go," he said.
The busiest of Maryland's smaller airports, Frederick Municipal is home base for about 228 aircraft. It handles an average of 326 flights a day and just opened a $5.3 million tower in May that is staffed by seven contract controllers.
The airport's volume was such that the FAA championed the tower to provide "an extra layer of safety for pilots," said Michael Huerta, the agency's deputy administrator, at the 2010 groundbreaking.
For tower chief Todd Martin, a 33-year controller and Navy veteran who began work the day the facility opened in May, closing it makes no sense.
"Before the tower opened, this place was a near-midair collision a minute. If you had asked me when I first walked through the door, I would have told you I was important to safety. Now, 10 months later, I'm not," he said. "This is a crazy, upside-down world."
Rep. Andy Harris wrote to FAA officials on Tuesday, urging them to spare the two airports in his district: Salisbury and Easton. The Republican lawmaker noted that contractor-operated towers handle 28 percent of flights while representing just 14 percent of the agency's overall air traffic control budget.
Harris called Friday's announcement "disappointing."
"Unfortunately, our efforts to persuade the FAA to make these cuts elsewhere fell short, but we will continue to work with these airports to ensure maximum safety going forward," he said.
In the Frederick tower, controllers tried not to think about their futures as they shepherded the crush of weekend air traffic.
"It's been a real roller coaster this last month," said Johnson, while on a brief break. "We're just being professional up here and we'll sort it out when we get home."
•Martin State Airport
•Frederick Municipal Airport
•Easton Airport/Newnam Field
•Hagerstown Regional Airport
•Salisbury-Ocean City Wicomico Regional Airport