Wednesday, February 27, 2013
Local airports suffer as federal spending cuts could de-fund towers, slash personnel
Airports could remain open, but safety would be greatly affected.
Automatic federal spending cuts could soon impact Dallas-Fort Worth area airports including Collin County Regional Airport in McKinney.
In light of a possible budget sequestration, set to take effect March 1, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) could reduce its expenditures by about $600 million for the rest of 2013, according to reports.
Such cuts would likely shut down air traffic control towers at 238 airports around the country, including several DFW airports. The McKinney airport, which began operating a new, 78-foot air traffic control tower February 18, 2011, would be forced to, at least temporarily, stop using the tower.
"If [the FAA] stops funding the tower, we won't close the airport," said Ken Wiegand, CCRA executive director. "We'll remain open, but the level of safety will be affected."
Last spring, Congress called for federal entities, including the FAA, to determine ways to cut expenses by March of this year, and ruled that if satisfactory deals were not in place by then, it would mandate automatic spending cuts. Such cuts could affect commercial and general aviation airports around the U.S. by the end of this week.
CBS 11 reported Monday that 2.1 million federal employees, including security checkpoint screeners, could face furloughs because of the cuts. For airports like CCRA that facilitate fewer than 150,000 operations -- takeoffs and landings -- a year, the cuts would mean closing their air traffic control towers.
"Why they'd close 238 control towers across the country is beyond me," said Wiegand, who was in Austin this week along with other airport directors pushing for a better resolution. "The FAA's No. 1 priority is air traffic safety, so whoever elected to include a safety item [in the cuts], I don't understand."
Like other airports, CCRA has a contractual agreement with the FAA to fund the manning of the air traffic control tower, thus why its operation would cease under the cuts.The airport currently operates without the tower between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., during which pilots use a shared radio frequency for separation, but because a "fleet mix" of high-powered jet aircraft and smaller, single-engine aircraft use the airport, lack of control tower operations "presents a flight safety concern," Wiegand said.
"All pilots are trained to fly into uncontrolled airports, but some require positive control ... so we're not sure how it's going to impact us," he said. "Some aircraft have to, or much prefer to, have air traffic control, and some of those are business clients we want to keep."
CCRA staff estimates that the airport's air traffic control tower accounts for about $573,000 a year in federal funding. The airport facilitates close to 83,000 operations each year, a number that could decrease if the control tower shut down.
Wiegand spent time this week in discussion with the staff of local Reps. Ralph Hall and Sam Johnson, and that of Sen. Ted Cruz and Sen. John Cornyn, in hopes they can help sway the cuts away from air traffic control. Wiegand said "the entire U.S. Congress is being contacted" about the issue, because it is "bigger than one small general aviation airport in Texas."
He has a Washington, D.C. contact who's keeping him informed on the situation, which Wiegand said he's "hoping is just another bluff."
DFW International Airport and Love Field Airport both face cuts regarding personnel, and smaller airports in Dallas, Grand Prairie, Arlington, and Fort Worth also face furloughs that could shut down their air traffic control towers, according to the CBS report.
CCRA would have to seek alternative funding for the tower to remain operational should the cuts go through.
"Sequestration is going to happen, but we don't know right now exactly what that will mean," Wiegand said. "It is going to impact us one way or another."
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