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FAA: Sequestration could force O'Hare tower, runway to close at times

(MCT) — Automatic federal budget cuts could force a control tower and an arrival runway at O'Hare International Airport to close at times, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta told a congressional committee on Wednesday.

Air traffic controllers have calculated the runway closing could delay arriving flights by an average of 44 minutes. FAA officials have said furloughs and resulting delays would likely kick in by April.

Those delays would affect travelers not only in the Chicago region but also nationwide because O'Hare is a major connecting hub for flights.

About $600 million in FAA "sequestration" cuts would require reductions in air traffic controllers' hours, which can be a problem even for large airports, Huerta said in testimony before the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Wednesday.

O'Hare towers run with tight staffing, he said.

"If we need to reduce controller hours, one factor that we would need to consider is, in certain weather conditions, we may need to close the north tower," Huerta said. "If we need to close the north tower, that effectively removes a runway from operation. We would do everything we can to mitigate against that. But if we have fewer controller hours to work with, these are the sorts of impacts that could affect the large-hub airports."

Operating without O'Hare's north tower would reduce the number of arrival runways on most days to two from three and the number of arriving flights to 72 from 114, a reduction of 37 percent, said James Hall, union representative for air traffic controllers in the Chicago region.

More broadly, FAA officials have said the effect of furloughs could be 90-minute delays. That's on top of possible security screening delays because of cuts to Transportation Security Administration personnel.

Chicago O'Hare Terminal Radar Approach Control, or TRACON, employs about 80 air traffic controllers, 20 of whom are not fully trained, to manage the skies at airports in a 40 mile radius, which includes O'Hare, Chicago Midway and smaller nearby airports, Hall said.

Chicago Midway could also be forced to cut overnight flights. Only 48 Midway flights operate between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m., according to the Chicago Department of Aviation. Southwest Airlines, by far the biggest airline at Midway, has no overnight departures.

Two smaller Illinois airports, DuPage in West Chicago and Peoria International, could also end overnight monitoring, under the FAA's cutback plan.

Closing five Illinois airport towers also would be considered. DuPage is on that list, as are Central Illinois Regional Airport at Bloomington-Normal, Decatur Airport, Southern Illinois Airport in Murphysboro and Marion County Regional in Marion.

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