Gary airport feels brunt of sequestration battle

Air traffic controllers could be pulled if budget deal doesn't come through.

February 28, 2013

The political battle over sequestration could have a real impact in neighboring Northwest Indiana.

If a deal isn’t reached before Friday, those automatic budget cuts could force the closing of the control tower at the fledgling Gary Chicago International Airport in Gary, Indiana. 

Interim airport director Steve Landry says even if that happens, it won’t have much of an impact on overall operations.

Planes already takeoff and land without control tower assistance from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m.

“It will not affect the safety of the airport, it will however affect the efficiency of air traffic into and and out of the airport,” Landry told WBEZ on Thursday. “So, without the air traffic controllers in the tower there are procedures in place to make (landing and takeoffs) happen and make that happen safely.”

But a spokeswoman for Gary’s only commercial carrier, Allegiant Air, says the company is unsure if its planes will continue to fly in and out of the airport if an air traffic controller is not present.

“We’ll certainly look at all of our options and try to mitigate any inconvenience for our customers and any change in our operations. But right now, it’s a lot of speculation. We just don’t know what is going to happen,” Allegiant spokeswoman Jessica Wheeler said.

Corporate, charter and cargo jets currently utilize the Gary airport as it undergoes a multimillion dollar expansion of its main runway. The Indiana National Guard houses helicopters at the airport, and the Boeing Corporation keeps a fleet of corporate jets there.

But commercial carriers have been hard to come by for Gary.

Allegiant Air has operated consistently out of the airport for about a year with flights to near Orlando, Florida.

This unplanned set back is an unwelcome development for Allegiant Air in Gary.

“We would rather not have our airports shut down and cut back on staff, certainly not as we gear into spring break and a heavy travel season,” Wheeler said. “But we’re going to do what we always do: We’re going to react to situations and make the best of it and try to keep our service running as much as possible.”

Landry says the cuts, if they happen, won’t shut down the control tower in Gary until April.

And even still, Will Davis, owner of the privately-operated Gary Jet Center at the airport, says there’s a 50/50 chance nothing will happen.

He says the Gary airport is on a list of some 200 airports nationwide that could have its funding for air traffic controllers cut.

But like Landry, Davis says the airport can function without air traffic controllers, which it does during those overnight hours.

“There’s a lot of air traffic that comes in and out of here at night because of freight work that we do, so there are definite FAA procedures to function. It doesn’t impact the airport’s ability to function,” Davis said. “Do we like to have the tower? Absolutely. It’s just for efficiencies and safety and everything else, but we can operate without an operating tower.”

As President Obama tries to nudge lawmakers to approve a deal, Republican U.S. senators like Dan Coats of Indiana don’t support the president’s plan.

“The president’s answer to this problem is yet another call for higher taxes to pay for more government spending. This solves nothing.  A smarter approach is to give the heads of agencies the flexibility to implement these cuts responsibly by eliminating waste and duplication from their departments,” Coats said in a statement on Thursday.

“Instead, the White House wants to play politics by threatening to go after the civilian defense personnel that support our national security, border patrol agents, air traffic controllers and first responders to continue the administration’s spending and taxing addiction.”

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