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Travellers planning to hit the skies this spring and summer should expect some delays.

Starting 7 April, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which oversees air travel in the US, plans to close 149 air traffic control towers across the country.

Sweeping US government budget cuts, known as sequestration, went into effect on 1 March after Congress failed to agree on voluntary spending cuts to reduce the country’s mounting debt. The $85 billion reduction will gradually affect many of the government’s operations, including education, defence, medical care and national parks.

And of course, air travel. The air traffic control closures are part of the FAA’s effort to cut $627 million from its $16 billion budget by the end of the fiscal year on 30 September 2013.

The cuts will hit air traffic control towers at small and mid-sized airports, reports Bloomberg News. For the least disruption possible, the FAA has targeted airports with the smallest amount of commercial flights, namely those with fewer than 10,000 arrivals and departures. Among the airports set to lose operations in their towers are Arizona’s Phoenix Goodyear Airport, New York’s Ithaca Tompkins Airport, California’s Sacramento Executive Airport, Missouri’s St Louis Regional Airport and Kansas’ Philip Billard Municipal Airport. (See the full list of affected airports.)

These airports will continue to operate on a normal schedule, relying instead on information from the control towers of nearby airports. Pilots flying in and out of affected airports will radio one another to coordinate landings and takeoffs.

But the closures are coinciding with furloughs for air traffic controllers at other, larger airports as well. Due to the budget cuts, many air traffic controllers around the country will start working four-day weeks this spring. Taken together, this could overburden towers still in service – and potentially lead to major delays for flyers.

While the FAA insists the closures will not impact safety because pilots can rely on other means to coordinate takeoffs and landings, some in the air traffic control community believe the move will remove an important layer of safety from air travel and overwork the remaining towers.

“Contract towers have long been an integral part of the FAA's system of managing the nation's complex airspace, and the decision to shutter these critical air-traffic control facilities on such an unprecedented and wide-scale basis raises serious concerns about safety – both at the local level and throughout the aviation system,” said Spencer Dickerson, executive director of the US Contract Tower Association, in a 22 March statement.

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