April 4, 2013 7:45 pm

Budget axe starts landing on economic ‘lifelines’

A United Continental Holdings Inc. aircraft approaches the tarmac while landing at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago©Bloomberg

South Padre Island is a holiday hotspot during the midterm spring break from schools. But the annual influx of 60,000 holidaymakers to the south Texas resort did not spare the local airport in Brownsville from the Federal Aviation Administration’s axe.

Last month, Brownsville airport was one of 149 around the US that saw funding for its control tower cut because of sequestration – the $1.2tn in automatic spending cuts over 10 years that hit the federal budget on March 1. Others include the Boca Raton tower in Florida, the Ithaca tower in New York, and one in San Diego.

In Washington, Barack Obama has been chided by Republicans for being alarmist when the president issued warnings about the terrible damage sequestration would do to the economy, because the effect at a national level has, as yet, been muted.

However, in small cities such as Brownsville in Cameron county, one of the poorest counties in the US, the budget battles in Washington have forced local politicians to dip into their own budgets to keep their airports functioning.

Bills that were paid by the federal government are now being sent to local taxpayers, who could see higher property and other taxes as a result of increased demand for revenue.

Brownsville has to find $44,000 a month until the end of September to keep the control tower open. It has done this by diverting sales tax to the airport from a local development fund.

Rick Perry, the state’s conservative governor and a former presidential candidate who is a critic of federal government spending and supports budget cuts, has also offered help. The Texas transport department has vowed to assist Brownsville and 12 other small airports for 90 days, though it is far from clear how the towers will be funded in the long term.

“When we found out we were on the list, we went into emergency mode,” said Tony Martinez, Brownsville’s mayor.

“The federal government is trying to get leaner and figure out how it goes about that, [but] in most instances the counties with the greatest poverty get hit the hardest.”

Mr Martinez says Brownsville is seeking to encourage economic development, and that its air services are fundamental.

Carlos Cascos, the Cameron county judge, said: “It is going to have a financial impact, because local dollars will be paying the salaries of the air traffic controllers.”

He is also concerned about the possibility of longer waiting times at three county bridges on the border with Mexico – another area expected to be affected by budget cuts.

If the funding for the airport did not exist, Mr Cascos says flights in and out of Brownsville would have been cancelled by the airlines that provide regional services.

“The airport is one of Brownsville’s lifelines,” he said.

However, the FAA said the cuts were not designed to close the airports themselves. It said the change would designate the airports as “uncontrolled fields”, where pilots would have to announce their location and intentions on a certain frequency, as they were trained to do.

“Pilots will look out the window and provide separation [from other aircraft] themselves,” said the agency, pointing to the fact that this was already done at airports around the country.

Small airports are not the only ones feeling the squeeze from sequestration. By the end of this month, unpaid holidays for all FAA employees will begin, which means that one in 10 of the agency’s workers will be absent on any given day.

Chicago’s O’Hare airport, the second busiest in the US after Atlanta, will face particularly difficult circumstances because of its runway configuration, the FAA said.

The airport has indicated that it might well be forced to close its north control tower, which means that one of its runways will not be in use under certain weather conditions so it can staff its main control tower properly.

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