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Budget cuts could slash pivotal staff at Atlantic City airport

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Air traffic control service at Atlantic City International Airport could be disrupted by federal spending cuts slated to take effect in January, according to a new report, dealing a potential blow to the growing facility as the city works to revive its tourism industry.

The Egg Harbor Township airport could lose 28 air traffic control staff members as a result of the cuts by the Federal Aviation Administration, according to the report by the Center for American Progress, a Washington-based think tank. The South Jersey hub is one of up to 106 smaller airports nationwide that might be affected.

An official from the South Jersey Transportation Authority, which operates the airport, declined to comment on the report. An FAA spokeswoman declined to say how many air traffic controllers currently work at the facility, and referred all questions to the federal Office of Management and Budget, which did not immediately respond a request for comment.

The report, "Oops, I Lost the Airport," cites automatic spending cuts of about $1.35 billion at the FAA that will take effect Jan. 2. The cuts result from last summer's law that raised the federal debt ceiling — a compromise that increased the government's borrowing power, but called for deep spending cuts in fiscal 2013. Congress has five months to enact a balanced deficit reduction plan that could mitigate or avoid the cuts.

Report author Scott Lilly said the plan could require the FAA to cut about 2,000 of its roughly 15,000 air traffic controllers. While there is no official plan, Lilly noted about 95 percent of the nation's commercial passengers fly out of the nation's 100 biggest airports, leaving smaller facilities more vulnerable.

"I don't know what the FAA is going to do, and I don't think they know what they're going to do," Lilly said. "But if you look at the choices they have, shuttering those smaller airports would be far less disruptive to air passengers overall than trying to scale back nationwide."

Any cuts at Atlantic City International Airport would come amid a major expansion project there. The transportation authority is finishing a 75,000-square-foot addition that will add three new gates and a federal customs facility to its terminal, allowing it to offer international service.

Kevin Rehmann, the SJTA's security and operations manager, said the project should be completed in October. He said the airport's capacity is "much more than we have now, so I think we're well positioned to be a reliever airport for the congested skies over Philadelphia and Newark."

"Personally, I feel that the demand is there," Rehmann said. "Anecdotal conversations with our passengers say they would certainly utilize it if the service was here. So that goes into our pitch to other airlines to come here."

Beyond its expansion plans, traffic at the facility is up nearly 2 percent through the end of June, he said. The growth is propelled by a 10.6 percent increase in scheduled passenger service on Spirit Airlines, the airport's lone commercial carrier.

A rise in scheduled air service deplanements at the airport have been among the indicators touted by the Atlantic City Tourism and Visitors Authority in recent months, as the state works to lure more overnight visitors to the resort city. Officials with the authority declined to comment for this story.

Lilly said there is talk at the federal level of trying to avert the scheduled budget cuts, but nothing encouraging thus far.

"I hope it will happen, but I'm becoming more discouraged," he said. "And I think one of the reasons that there isn't more pressure to come up with an alternative is that the public, and even the policymakers, don't understand the kinds of choices that agencies like the FAA are going to have to make."

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