Sun 'n Fun will hire air traffic controllers on its own if necessary to staff the annual airshow and fly-in next month. President Lites Leenhouts told the Lakeland Ledger paying controllers would reduce the amount of money the organization can give to aviation scholarships but it will do what it must to ensure a safe and orderly air traffic flow at the show. "The public won't know the difference," Leenhouts said. "We're doing everything we can to ensure there are qualified controllers in the tower during all hours of operation." Lakeland Linder Airport is among a reported 173 airports across the country that have been targeted for closure due to budget restrictions imposed by sequestration and a final decision will be made March 18. The towers may close as early as April 7. Airport officials have until Wednesday to appeal the closure notice and Lakeland Linder director Gene Conrad told the Ledger he will cite Sun 'n Fun as a reason to keep the tower open.
Conrad told Fox 13 News the international stature of the fly-in warrants federal support. He also noted the airport was an important emergency staging area when the Tampa Bay area was hit by four major storms in a row in 2004. FAA administrator Michael Huerta has told officials of the affected airports that he'll only consider an exemption from the closure if they can prove it will be harmful to the country as a whole. "Negative impact on the national interest is the only criterion the FAA will use for deciding to continue services to an airport that falls below the activity threshold," Huerta and his ATO manager David Grizzle wrote. Even if the tower is closed, Conrad said he believes there's still a chance that FAA-funded controllers will handle the airshow. The controllers' contract stipulates a 30-day notice period on furloughs and Sun 'n Fun will take place within that window. "If those don't go out until the 18th, I would think the FAA controllers are still coming as scheduled," Conrad said.