Future of some Myrtle Beach flights up in the air as automatic budget cuts loom

02/27/2013 5:49 PM

02/28/2013 7:05 AM

The future is up in the air for some flights from Myrtle Beach as airlines wait to see how the Federal Aviation Administration responds to the U.S. budget cuts that are likely to kick in Friday.

Two airlines that serve Myrtle Beach, Spirit Airlines and Allegiant Air, are working through how the potential closing of control towers in cities they fly to from Myrtle Beach might effect that service, though Spirit says its flights will continue regardless.

Grand Strand Airport in North Myrtle Beach, which caters to private and corporate aircraft, also is on a list of potential airports where its control towers might be closed if Congress doesn’t stem the $85 billion in automatic cuts.

But the closing of control towers doesn’t mean the airports automatically shut down or the flights are canceled. Other nearby control towers could pick up that work.

“I don’t think [passengers] should panic,” said Kirk Lovell, spokesman for Horry County Airports, which runs Myrtle Beach International Airport and Grand Strand Airport.

Spirit says its flights from Myrtle Beach International to Latrobe, Pa., and Niagara Falls, N.Y., will continue even if the FAA closes those control towers, which is one of the options to cut $600 million the FAA outlined late last week. Allegiant is still evaluating how the cuts might affect its flights from Myrtle Beach to Youngstown, Ohio, and Huntington, W.Va.

“If the towers are closed down, we will evaluate our flights on a case by case basis,” Allegiant spokeswoman Jessica Wheeler said. “Any change in our operations and we will contact our customers immediately. We don’t want to make any quick judgments. Certainly we are going to evaluate all of our options.”

But none of the cuts are definite. The FAA outlined several options for trimming its budget, including furloughing employees, eliminating midnight shifts at 60 towers and closing 100 control towers across the country -- warning that flights in major cities such as New York could experience 90-minute delays in peak times if the cuts take place. The proposed cuts by the FAA are among those from U.S. departments that have been rolled out as the Friday deadline for Congress to act on the automatic budget cuts nears.

“All of these changes will be finalized as to scope and details through collaborative discussions with our users and our unions,” Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and Michael Huerta, FAA Administrator, said in a letter to aviation groups last week.

For now, the airlines are just waiting to see what the FAA ends up having to do.

“While we wait to see the full impact, if any, of government spending cuts which may close certain air traffic control towers, Spirit is planning to operate a normal schedule at Arnold Palmer Regional Airport in Latrobe,” Spirit spokeswoman Misty Pinson said in an email. “As always, the safety of our customers and crews is our top priority. Spirit is already authorized by the FAA to operate at [Latrobe] and [Niagara Falls, N.Y.] when the control tower is closed. As such, the airline follows FAA-approved procedures to ensure safe operations without a control tower.”

Any potential changes to flights likely wouldn’t be immediate. The FAA would have to give the airports 30 days notice before a control tower closes, Lovell said. The letter from LaHood and Huerta said that facility shut downs and furloughs would begin in April.

Even if the FAA shuts down the control tower at Grand Strand Airport in North Myrtle Beach, it would be business as usual for pilots, Lovell said after meeting with local FAA officials Wednesday. Pilots could still fly in and out, but would be given a new control tower to contact, Lovell said.

“It’s really a non-issue,” he said. “Nothing changes for anybody out there. The airport stays open and operates like it always does.”

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