A stalemate over federal spending could trigger automatic cuts that would put Columbus’ airport tower in danger of closing, while jeopardizing other local programs such as early childhood education.
The Columbus Municipal Airport is on a list of 200 airports nationwide with 150,000 or fewer annual flights that face losing federal funding to operate their control towers. The federal Transportation Department said it planned to close 100 of those towers if the spending cuts go into effect Friday.
The Columbus airport averages 45,000 flights per year, airport director Brian Payne said.
Columbus’ tower operates from 6:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day of the week, staffed by a pool of five controllers, Payne said. Two work on any given day, each working eight hours. The operating budget for the tower and its controllers — about $400,000 — is supported entirely with federal funds, Payne said.
The Columbus airport would continue to operate, even if its tower closed, Payne said. Of the state’s 116 public-use landing facilities, which include 69 airports, and more than 500 landing facilities including private fields, only 12 of them have control towers, Payne said. The Transportation Department proposes closing six of that dozen.
If no deal between Republicans and Democrats is reached and the impasse leads to a protracted closure, the Columbus airport, which operates on a $1.3 million budget this year, could feel a significant pinch, said Caleb Tennis, president of the airport board.
That’s because airports with towers benefit from having certain types of flights, Tennis said. The loss of those flights would result in an airport that is not used as much, which could affect the airport’s ability to secure federal grants for improvement projects, such as repaving runways.
Payne noted that 90 percent of the cost of the airport’s recent runway improvements were funded with federal grants.
Closure of the tower would mean that pilots would have to communicate with one another to understand weather conditions, instead of with air traffic controllers, Tennis said.
Military flights have landing systems that need to have communication with control towers, Tennis said. Those military flights likely would be redirected to other airports if Columbus’ tower closed.
Impact on business travel
The airport also could see a reduction in business flights as corporate aircraft — for safety reasons — tend to fly into airports that have towers, Tennis said. The closure of the Columbus tower could cause clients of local companies to fly into and from other airports in order to conduct business, he said.
Tennis and Payne said they did not know yet what the impact would mean for companies such as Cummins Inc. or Faurecia, which have operations in Columbus and use the airport regularly to transport executives to and from locations for business purposes.
Cummins indicated it is monitoring the situation closely.
“We hope Congress and the (Obama) administration can work together to develop a long-term budget and debt solution that deals with spending in a responsible manner to avoid any negative effects the cuts could have,” Cummins spokesman Jon Mills said.
People who are training for a pilot’s license must train for a certain number of hours at airports with towers, Tennis said. Those individuals would have to train elsewhere.
As a result of losing these types of flights, the airport also would lose revenue from fuel sales. Columbus Municipal Airport receives 18 cents per gallon of fuel pumped into airplanes.
Columbus Municipal Airport is self-funded and receives no money from the city budget. Its revenues are derived from the land it leases, farming operations and the individuals and businesses who use the facility — such as hangar rentals.
Talks with lawmakers
Payne and Tennis said they plan to talk to city officials about what this possible closure could mean. They also plan to talk to state and federal lawmakers such as U.S. Rep. Luke Messer, R-Ind.; state Rep. Milo Smith, R-Columbus; and Gov. Mike Pence, a Columbus native.
One thing Payne said he and Tennis would stress to lawmakers is that Columbus Municipal Airport has a $650 million effect on the community and state, and is one of the top economic engines among Indiana airports, according to a study released late last year.
Closure of airport towers could put more stress on the airports whose towers remain open, Tennis said.
“If controllers in Indianapolis are overwhelmed, you could see flights delayed,” Tennis said.
The automatic, across-the-board federal spending cuts, called the sequester, were supposed to serve as a mechanism to force a special deficit-reduction committee to come up with at least $1 trillion in savings from benefit programs. The committee failed, and Democrats and Republicans have been battling over the federal budget and spending cuts as Friday’s deadline looms.
The automatic cuts would trim $85 billion in domestic and defense spending. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said Friday that $600 million in cuts to the Federal Aviation Administration would shut down 100 or more airport towers.
The problem with the stalemate between the president and Congress is that local communities suffer, Columbus Mayor Kristen Brown said.
“We feel it the most at the local level because it’s our people,” she said.
Other local programs could be hurt by automatic cuts. The White House said in a news release that Head Start and Early Head Start services would be eliminated for about 1,000 children in Indiana. Those programs provide access to early education programs for children of lower-income families.
Indiana also faces the loss of $820,000 in funding for nutrition programs for senior citizens. The state also could lose $13.8 million in funding for primary and secondary education.
“I opposed the Budget Control Act that established sequestration cuts because the policy falsely assumes that all federal programs are equal and therefore all programs should be cut equally,” U.S. Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., said on his web site Monday.
“A more responsible way to govern is to separate the essential functions of government from the programs that are duplicative, unnecessary or unaffordable to find ways to reduce spending and save taxpayer dollars,” he said.
Coats added that the White House announcement Sunday night on the impact of automatic cuts neglected to mention that the president proposed the sequester plan and has threatened to veto legislation to replace it. “Rather than resorting to scare tactics, President Obama should abandon call for more taxes and instead agree to responsible, targeted alternative spending reductions,” Coats said.