WHEELING - Despite speculation by a national news organization, Sen. Joe Manchin was not involved in a Republican plan to avoid the sequester of federal spending set to take effect Friday - a proposal that was rejected by President Obama.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and other top Republicans pitched a plan they said would give the president flexibility to allocate $85 billion in looming spending cuts, but Obama said there's no smart way to cut such a large chunk from the budget over just seven months.
Manchin spokesman Jon Kott denied that Manchin agreed to support the GOP plan. Kott said while Manchin is working to achieve a bipartisan solution and to perhaps give the president and department heads some discretion in how cuts would be made, the West Virginia Democrat "is not signing on" to the GOP plan.
Manchin has several concerns regarding the sequester, including many issues that could impact the Northern Panhandle.
For example, the air traffic control tower at the Wheeling-Ohio County Airport - and others in West Virginia - could close if Congress fails to reach agreement to stop the scheduled sequester, according to Manchin.
"We're going to continue to provide the best service we can with or without a tower," said Tom Tominack, manager of the Wheeling-Ohio County Airport. "The public shouldn't make the assumption we will close" if a spending deal isn't achieved.
Tominack said there are about 17,000 airports across the nation, and approximately 450 of them have air traffic control towers. Of those with towers, 238 are slated for closure by the Federal Aviation Administration if the agency must cut funding.
Manchin said the FAA's overall budget would be reduced by $600 million under the sequester, forcing the agency to shut down airport towers at facilities where there are fewer than 150,000 flights a year. About 38,000 flights were logged last year at the Wheeling-Ohio County Airport, according to Tominack.
Manchin's office has gathered information from the Obama administration, the FAA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other sources to determine how the cuts could affect West Virginia.
The research indicated air traffic control facilities in the state would be closed at the Wheeling-Ohio County Airport, the North Central West Virginia Airport, the Tri-State Milton J. Ferguson Field, the Greenbrier Valley Airport and the Mid-Ohio Valley Regional Airport.
In addition, overnight shifts would be eliminated at Yeager Airport in Charleston.
"We've had an active tower at the Wheeling-Ohio County Airport since 1949, and it's there for a reason - to provide separation of aircraft and provide for safety," Tominack said.
Aircraft passing within 5 miles of the tower - those at least 3,000 feet above the ground - have to get clearance from the tower to proceed, he explained. Controllers also serve as weather observers. The next closest towers are in Pittsburgh, Columbus and Morgantown.
The tower at the Wheeling-Ohio County Airport is considered a "contract control tower" by the FAA. Its operation is bid out to a private sector firm, and Midwest Air Traffic operates the air tower at the local airport.
Tominack noted that of the 238 towers slated for closure, 195 of them are contract control towers.
"I find it hard to believe they could disrupt air traffic to this extent," he said of Congress. "If they wanted to save money, they could streamline in a much safer way."
Tominack also believes the airport could be adversely affected by the bulk of the sequestration cuts that are set to happen in the defense budget. The West Virginia National Guard's 150th Aviation Support Co. and armory is based at the airport, and the U.S. Army also has a Reserve facility there.