FAA closing control towers at Sugar Land, Lone Star Regional due to budget cuts

March 22, 2013 1:07:47 PM PDT
The Federal Aviation Administration says two Houston-area airports are among the149 that will lose their air traffic towers due to budget cuts.

Sugar Land Regional Airport and Lone Star Executive both are affected by the agency's decision, which was announced Friday, a month after it released a preliminary list of facilities that could be closed.

The closures will not force the shutdown of any of those airports, but pilots will be left to coordinate takeoffs and landings among themselves over a shared radio frequency with no help from ground controllers under procedures that all pilots are trained to carry out.

The plan has raised concerns since a preliminary list of facilities was released a month ago. Those worries include the impact on safety and the potential financial effect on communities that rely on airports as key economic engines for attracting businesses and tourists.

"We will work with the airports and the operators to ensure the procedures are in place to maintain the high level of non-towered airports," FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said in a statement.

But Sugar Land city leaders are not only worried about the impact on safety, but the economic fallout. Sugar Land has grown to more than 80,000 people, and dozens of Fortune 500 companies use the airport, where clearing customs can go more quickly.

"Closing that tower is a really bad option," Sugar Land Spokesperson Doug Adolph told Eyewitness News earlier this month. "This airport is not a highway to nowhere. It's not somebody's special port project. It's an important part of the economy."

The city is weighing their options from operating without the air traffic controllers, to funding the contract themselves if the FAA would even allow it.

The FAA is being forced to trim $637 million for the rest of the fiscal year that ends Sept. 30. The agency said it had no choice but to subject most of its 47,000 employees, including tower controllers, to periodic furloughs and to close air traffic facilities at small airports with lighter traffic. The changes are part of the across-the-board spending cuts known as sequestration, which went into effect March 1.

All of the airports targeted for tower shutdowns have fewer than 150,000 total flight operations per year. Of those, fewer than 10,000 are commercial flights by passenger airlines.

Airport directors, pilots and others in the aviation sector have argued that stripping away an extra layer of safety during the most critical stages of flight will elevate risks and at the very least slow years of progress in making the U.S. aviation network the safest in the world.

Airlines have yet to say whether they will continue offering service to airports that lose tower staff. Any scaling back of passenger service could have major economic impact for communities.

Mark Hanna, director of the Abraham Lincoln Capital Airport in Springfield, Ill., says without ground controllers as backup the risk to operate "goes up exponentially," especially at airports like his, which have such a broad mix of aircraft types: everything from privately operated Piper Cubs to the larger passenger planes of United and American airlines.

That an aviation sector as sensitive as air traffic control could become subject to political brinkmanship in Washington was especially frustrating, he said.

Hoping to escape the final cut, he and other airport directors were left to argue with the FAA about whether the closure of their facilities would adversely affect what the agency described in a letter as the "national interest."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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