Air Force Base Flight Controllers Furloughed

GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- Air traffic controllers at Grand Forks Air Force Base, who also serve double duty controlling civilian airspace in the region, had their hours reduced last week, according to the base.

It's a consequence of the federal budget sequestration affecting many federal agencies, including the Pentagon.

At the Grand Forks base, there are 14 air traffic controllers, base spokesman Tim Flack said in an email.

"The furlough of civilian Air Traffic Controllers will not have a direct impact on the general public or the Civil Aviation community," he said. "Grand Forks AFB will continue to provide world class service to our customers."

To ensure 24/7 coverage during the furlough, he said, the base has staggered the work schedule of air traffic controllers. But, he said, at least one controller will be on furlough every day.

Typically, civilian air traffic is controlled by the Federal Aviation Administration. Grand Forks is a rare example of the military controlling both military and civilian air traffic, according to Tony Molinaro, FAA spokesman for the Great Lakes Region, which includes North Dakota.

The FAA has air traffic controllers in the tower at Grand Forks International Airport, a dozen miles down the road from the base. Molinaro said towers typically control airspace about 10 miles out, basically the airspace immediately around the airport.

From 10 to 40 miles out, the airspace is controlled by what's known as "approach control." That's usually an FAA function, Molinaro said, but in Grand Forks it's performed by the Air Force.

Beyond 40 miles and at high altitude, the airspace is controlled by "en-route centers." The Grand Forks airport and air base are in a region that includes parts of seven states and is controlled by a center in the Twin Cities.

If the Grand Forks base was unable to provide the necessary coverage, Molinaro said FAA controllers at another location could take over; the radar is located at the base, but the information from the radar should be available to controllers around the country.

Congress gave the FAA more flexibility than other agencies on how it deals with sequestration, so air traffic controllers are not affected for now.

But, according to Molinaro, that's only for the current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.

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