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Government sequestration could affect Hagerstown Regional Airport

February 22, 2013|By CALEB CALHOUN | caleb.calhoun@herald-mail.com
  • A plane appears to have landed on the air traffic control tower at Hagerstown Regional Airport. The pilot was practicing a flyby.
By Ric Dugan/Staff Photographer

With less than a week remaining before federal budget cuts could go into effect, federal agencies and parks, the military, hospitals, doctors, and Hagerstown Regional Airport, prepare for the ramifications if Congress fails to pass legislation to avoid it by March 1.

The mandatory cuts, known as the sequester, would total around $1.2 trillion from 2013 to 2021, according to published reports.

A Friday email from the office of U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., warned that the air traffic control towers at Hagerstown Regional Airport and four other Maryland regional airports could close April 1 as a result of sequestration.

“Sequester will cripple air transportation, causing ripple effects across the economy and costing us jobs we can’t afford to lose,” Mikulski said in the email. “These are real impacts in real communities with real consequences.”

More than 100 air traffic control towers across the country could close as a result of more than $600 million in cuts to the Federal Aviation Administration if sequestration goes into effect, U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said, according to Mikulski’s email.

“That would be a worst-case scenario,” Hagerstown Regional Airport Director Phil Ridenour said Friday of the possibility that 100 air traffic control towers could close.

Another option might be to furlough air traffic controllers, which could result in the local tower being operated by one, instead of the two, controllers who normally staff it, Ridenour said.

“But that would still not be good from a safety standpoint or a personnel standpoint,” Ridenour said.

Flights could still go on even if the tower, which is owned, operated and maintained by the FAA, were closed, Ridenour said. In that event, pilots would communicate with the Washington Air Route Traffic Control Center in Leesburg, Va., he said.

“It really, overall, would not have much of an impact on Allegiant,” said Ridenour of the airline that runs two flights a week to Florida from the airport. Sun Air International also operates daily commuter flights between Hagerstown and Dulles International Airport in Virginia.

More of a safety issue is what happens on the ground, Ridenour said. Normally, tower personnel control the movements of the aircraft on the ground, but that would be up to the individual pilots if the tower was closed. That could pose a threat in a situation where a plane is taxiing across a runway while another is landing.

The FAA probably has not figured out how it will implement sequestration, should it occur, Ridenour said.

Mikulski, who is chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, requested statements from federal agencies on the impact sequestration would have. The response letters were posted on the committee’s website at www.appropriations.senate.gov.

Although Social Security and Medicaid payments are exempt, more than 5,000 employees could lose their jobs, and another 1,500 temporary and retired federal employees who have returned to work would be terminated as a result of sequestration, according to a Feb. 7 letter from Social Security Commissioner Michael J. Astrue.

Social Security Administration offices would face a reduction in hours, visitors to the office could wait almost 30 minutes to see a representative, and callers to the SSA 800-number could wait almost 10 minutes for an answer, the letter says. The number of disability claims awaiting approval would increase by more than 140,000 claims, and it would take about two weeks longer for a decision on an initial disability claim and up to a month longer for a disability hearing decision.

Medicare faces a 2 percent cut, or nearly $10 billion, which means doctors, hospitals, and other Medicare providers will be reimbursed 98 cents on the dollar when tending to Medicare beneficiaries, according to a letter sent to Mikulski on Feb. 1 by Kathleen Sebelius, Secretary of Health and Human Services.

Meritus Health would face losses in profits due to the Medicare cuts, according to an email from Communications Manager Nicole Jovel, but no layoffs are planned related to the sequestration nor will the number of Medicare patients be cut.

“Medicare cuts from the sequestration will have a negative impact on our bottom line, which will need to be addressed in budget planning,” Jovel said in an email.

The National Park Service could find itself cutting back hours and having fewer rangers at the parks.

According to NPS documents released by the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees on its website at www.npsretirees.org, Antietam National Battlefield faces a $172,000, or 5 percent, cut out of the more than $3.4 million allocated to it for fiscal year 2013. The other three national parks that are partially in Washington County also face 5 percent cuts, which would result in $504,000 from the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park, $333,000 from Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, and $76,000 from the Appalachian National Scenic Trail.

“Local communities and businesses that rely on recreation to support their livelihoods would face a loss of income from reduced visitation to national parks,” NPS Spokesman Jeffrey Olson said in an email. “Some 280 million people visit national parks each year, and their spending alone supports 247,000 jobs and a $31 billion economic impact, mostly in local economies.”

The U.S. Department of Defense faces more than $450 billion in budget cuts over the next 10 years and more than $45 billion in cuts from March 1 until Sept. 30, when fiscal year 2013 ends, according to information on the department’s website, www.defense.gov. Almost all of the department’s nearly 800,000 civilian workers are facing furloughs of 22 days between implementation and the end of the fiscal year, meaning they would have to take off one day a week for 22 weeks.

In Franklin County, Pa., the reduction in defense spending could result in more than $449 million for Letterkenny Army Depot, which repairs Patriot missile systems, aviation generators, vehicles and other items for the military. The depot, with about 4,000 workers, is the county’s largest employer.

Maryland National Guard Spokesman Lt. Col. Charles Kohler said military technicians face furloughs, and all the contracts and contractors that support the agency’s efforts for deployment and reintegration, could be affected, including at its Randolph Millholland National Guard Armory on Roxbury Road south of Hagerstown.

“Some contracts could be canceled,” Kohler said. “It looks like there could be a 12.7 percent cut in our operating budget.”

The looming sequester is the result of the Balanced Budget Act of 2011, known as the debt ceiling compromise. The upcoming cuts were triggered when Congress failed to produce a deficit reduction bill with at least $1.2 trillion in cuts as required legally by the act by Nov. 23, 2011. It was originally scheduled to take effect Jan. 3 of this year but delayed until March 1 when Congress addressed the Bush-era tax cuts on Jan. 1.

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