St. Augustine among 149 control towers to close

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - The Federal Aviation Administration released its final list of small airport control towers it will close due to funding cuts, and two of Jacksonville's airports are spared, but Northeast Florida Regional in St. Augustine's tower will be closed.

Cecil Field, Craig Airport were on a preliminary list of towers that could be affected, but was not on the FAA's final list released Friday afternoon.

All of the affected airports will remain open. Pilots will be left to coordinate takeoffs and landings among themselves over a shared radio frequency with no help from ground controllers. That's something they are trained to do, but airport directors have raised concerns about the potential impact on safety.

The closures are the result of about $600 million in cuts the FAA needs to make between now and the end of the fiscal year in September.

As flights come in and go out from St. Augustine's Northeast Regional Airport - the view from the air traffic control center can be described as spectacular.

However, the mood is just barely north of somber for those affected by the funding cuts.

"We're very frustrated with the process," said Executive Director of NEFRA, Ed Wuellner. "The FAA has a process to get into that program."

Wuellner said he has been executive director at the regional airport for 17 years. Halfway through his term, one of the towers at the airport had opened.

While the airport has a reputation as a great facility, the FAA's decision to end the contract tower program here stings.

"Somebody decided this was the program that was gonna take the heat, and the hit," said Wuellner. "It's 60 percent of the towers nationally closed because of the action here? That's a serious blow to aviation safety."

The air traffic controllers said it was slow Friday evening, so they pulled up some records for this month.

For instance, on March 8th, controllers say more than 800 planes landed or took off.

A huge frustration for airport executives is trying to understand how the FAA made its decision.

"They made it clear, they didn't care bout the local impacts, whether economic or created operational issues inconvenienced big tenants or any other users," said Wuellner.

Without controllers, Wuellner said it can't possibly make flying any safer, even if it saves a dollar or two with what's call an uncontrolled field.

"Literally means, some pilots begin to operate in a see-and-avoid," said Wuellner. "It's up to them to referee the activity at the airport."

In an accompanying statement, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta says the agency will take steps to ensure safe operations at the affected airports.

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