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Sequester cuts threaten A&M airport

Slashes in spending could close traffic control tower, threaten game day flyovers

Published: Sunday, April 21, 2013

Updated: Monday, April 22, 2013 01:04

Sequester cuts that went into effect March 1 will soon impact at least one facet of the Bryan-College Station community — its airways.

The A&M-owned Easterwood Airport may face a series of budget cuts, resulting in, among other things, the closure of the air traffic controller tower as soon as June 15. Easterwood is owned and operated by Texas A&M University and serves as a gateway to Research Valley, and the eventual cuts could jeopardize game day Kyle Field flyovers.

Some members of a student-organized flying club at A&M that operates out of Easterwood are worried about the prospect of not having a traffic control tower.

Junior horticulture major Janos Arnosky, president of the club, said if the air traffic controller funding were slashed, it could impact the safety of all flying into Easterwood.

“Without a control tower the aircraft flying in and out of the airport would still be subject to traffic pattern and landing rules, but they would not be required to speak on or be equipped with a radio,” Arnosky said. “With the high volume of air traffic that Easterwood receives, not having a control tower would greatly diminish safety for everyone.”

As a result of the cuts, game day flyovers may be postponed, because the Department of Defense does not allow military pilots to conduct training flights to non-towered airports. U.S. Rep Bill Flores said, without the flyovers, Easterwood airport would lose 40 percent of its fuel sales.

Arnosky said, as an additional setback, some spectators could chose not to fly in without an operating tower to guide and control the flow of air traffic.

The threat of tower closure has met opposition from some local legislators.

“I am opposed to how these cuts are being enacted,” Flores said. “Instead of cutting essential programs like airport funding, the federal government needs to reform their spending habits and cut duplicate non-essential programs.”

As part of the sequester, 100 small airports across the U.S., including Easterwood, were asked to close their air traffic controllers by mid-April. The controller closures would fall heavily within Texas borders — Texas was asked to close 14 regional airport traffic controller towers.

In early April, the Texas Transportation Commission approved a temporary measure to keep the 14 small airports traffic controllers running for another 90 days. The endeavor will cost around $2 million. To keep these controllers running year round, it would cost about $7 million a year according to the Texas Transportation Commission.

Last week, the Federal Aviation Administration announced it would not close the traffic control towers until June 15 and Texas would continue to fund Easterwood for the next three months. David Glessner, a spokesperson for the Texas Department of Transportation, TxDOT, said he is pleased with the FAA’s decision.

“This is good news,” Glessner said. “We appreciate the federal government taking the time to re-evaluate its decision.”

Flores also expressed approval for the decision.

“I applaud the federal government and the State of Texas for stepping in to keep the towers open at Easterwood Airport,” Flores said.

Air traffic control towers help guide more than 65,000 flights each month at Texas municipal airports, according to a press release from TxDOT. Without an air traffic tower, the pilots would use a “see and avoid” method to land. Instead of radioing into the tower to receive clearance to take off or land, pilots would make the decision. Jacob Shaw, vice president of public relations for Flying Aggies and sophomore mechanical engineering major, also believes the cuts would be hazardous.

“Given the fact that the military, two airlines, a flight school, many private pilots and charter flights, and our flying club all fly in and out of Easterwood, and that the airport currently has two intersecting [runways], I think that closing down the tower would present a danger to everyone flying in and out of the airport,” Shaw said.

Although Arnosky and Shaw both said the cuts would negatively impact Bryan-College Station finances, Flores said these cuts would not devastate the community.

“This is not the end of the world, but it will have an effect on the community,” Flores said. “There are commercial and regional airports across the U.S who do not have air traffic control towers. This would only affect the military training operations at Easterwood, but as part of the sequester, that training has already been reduced.”

When the Federal Transportation Department announced the cuts to smaller airports in March, University President R. Bowen Loftin issued a statement.

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