Looming budget cuts could hit airport

2/27/2013

Local air traffic control tower on list of potential closures.

Local air traffic control tower on list of potential closures.

BY SCOTT AUST

saust@telegram.com

The air traffic control tower at Garden City Regional Airport is one of seven control towers in Kansas on the list for closure in April if Congress fails to prevent automatic across-the-board budget cuts by Friday.

Without a compromise on the federal budget by March 1, a series of automatic, across the board cuts totaling about $1.2 trillion over 10 years, split between defense and domestic discretionary spending, are set to go into effect. Called a sequestration or sequester, and designed to address the $16 trillion national debt, the automatic cuts have been talked about for more than a year.

In response to the looming deadline, the Federal Aviation Administration needed to cut about $600 million in spending for the rest of the year. To reach that number, the FAA announced plans to close 238 towers in April if the budget cuts go into effect. The FAA also plans to begin employee furloughs for the majority of its 47,000 employees and cut shifts at 60 airports.

Rachelle Powell, director of aviation at the airport, said the loss of the tower would have a major impact on the airport's operations, safety and emergency response, and potentially lead to a reduction in the number of flights. At the moment, Powell said it's unknown whether the number of American Eagle flights would be reduced, but the closure would definitely reduce the military's use of the airport.

"Specifically, the military would be impacted. The Air Force would be completely eliminated and other branches of the military would be significantly reduced, if not eliminated," she said.

The U.S. military is a long-time advocate and user of FAA contract towers, according to information provided by Powell. Military operations would be impacted because most military training missions require operational control towers.

Powell said Vance Air Force base in Enid, Okla., frequently flies patterns over southwest Kansas and accesses air traffic control services here. The airport is also frequently used by military units, largely helicopters, as a pit stop for cross-country trips.

As recently as Monday night, Powell said, two Blackhawk helicopters carrying 16 military members stopped in Garden City overnight, stayed in a local hotel and ate at a local restaurant. That kind of traffic would cease without the control tower, and the community would lose that kind of direct economic impact, she said.

"Also, our corporate business jet cross-country traffic would be in jeopardy, and that would all trickle down to our various revenue sources like fuel sales," she said.

The city contracts with Midwest ATC for air traffic control service. Four local employees would be affected.

Safety would also be affected. Powell said tower controllers keep aircraft separated and issue safety and weather alerts, and are the first to respond if there is an accident or an aircraft in trouble, and to contact local fire, law enforcement and emergency responders. Without controllers in the tower, those functions won't get done.

Darin Germann, with Saker Aviation, the airport's fixed base operator, only learned Tuesday afternoon that the tower was on the list of potential cuts.

"It's going to really hurt us. We're going to lose our military and a lot of our east-west traffic. They use the tower quite a lot so it's going to hurt us," he said. "Just the safety aspect of it is going to hurt."

Germann said the information really hasn't had a chance to sink in yet so he hasn't had time to think about what to do to prepare. The FBO at an airport handles all refueling of airlines, military and any special needs dealing with airport operations.

City Manager Matt Allen said the city has been working to contact the state's Congressional delegation, stressing the importance of the control tower to the airport and the region.

"Especially the role the control tower plays in preserving and maximizing the investment that not just the federal government has made, but the investment state government and the taxpayers have made in last three decades (in the airport)," he said.

Powell noted the airport and the control tower, played a role in responding to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack.

Garden City's tower opened in December 2000. Nine months later, on Sept. 11, Garden City's airport landed three commercial jets after the FAA ordered all aircraft to land immediately at the nearest airport, an option that was only available because the airport had an air traffic control tower.

Other control towers in Kansas included on the list of potential closures include: Forbes Field and Philip Billard Municipal in Topeka; Hutchinson Municipal, Hutchinson; New Century AirCenter and Johnson County Executive in Olathe; and Manhattan Regional, Manhattan.

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