Federal budget cuts ground San Marcos airport tower

by BRAD ROLLINS
San Marcos Mercury 

Less than two and a half years after its completion, the air traffic control tower at San Marcos Regional Airport will be closed in the next month or so as the result of automatic federal spending cuts.

The Federal Aviation Administration announced Friday that it would cut off funding for 149 privately-run airport traffic control towers nationwide starting April 7. Towers at 13 airports in Texas are marked for shutdown including those at San Marcos, New Braunfels, Georgetown and San Antonio-Stinson. The Arlington and Grand Prairie municipal airports were among 40 sparred at the last minute.

“We heard from communities across the country about the importance of their towers and these were very tough decisions. Unfortunately we are faced with a series of difficult choices that we have to make to reach the required cuts under sequestration,” Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a statement.

Officials have said they must cut $673 million from the FAA’s $9.7 billion annual operating budget under the across-the-board sequestration imposed by Congress and approved by President Obama last year. Since more than 70 percent of the agency’s budget is payroll for its 47,000 employees, personnel cuts are inevitable, LaHood has said.

In San Marcos, six full-time air traffic controllers and a manager employed by Manassas, Va.-based Robinson Aviation Inc. will lose their jobs – at least until funding is restored or the end of the federal fiscal year Sept. 30, whichever comes first.

“Many of my coworkers are retired military veterans in their 50s and 60s and this is the only skill they know. … Shutting these towers will have an immediate and detrimental effect on the entire National Airspace System,” San Marcos air traffic controller and union representative Ed Mears, a Buda resident, said in an email plea circulated earlier this month.

On March 11, city council member Kim Porterfield and others met with FAA officials to appeal the tower’s closing but were unsuccessful in saving it from the chopping block.

Air traffic control towers that handle fewer than 150,000 total flights and fewer than 10,000 commercial flights a year were identified for shuttering. The San Marcos airport tower falls far below those thresholds.

In 2012, the San Marcos airport reported 61,578 take offs and landings, the vast majority of which were private, “general aviation” aircraft. About 884 takeoffs and landings were commercial “air taxis,” or chartered passenger and cargo flights; another 865 were military flights. The balance – 59,827 – were general aviation flights. (Air traffic controllers accommodated an additional 2,120 through-flights over San Marcos airspace, most of them general aviation aircraft, as well.)

Yet San Marcos is the primary reliever for Austin-Bergstrom International Airport and might have benefited from the anticipated cuts at ABIA were both airports not in the same fix. Forty Austin air traffic controllers were notified weeks ago that they should expect two unpaid furlough days a month; ABIA officials told the Austin American-Statesman the cuts could delay landings and take offs while pilots wait for clearance from controllers.

The San Marcos airport tower was paid for with $1.5 million in federal funds and completed in October 2010. It began operations in September 2011.

The tower closures were met with rapid denouncement from Republican congressional leaders. U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster, who chairs the House’s Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and Sen. John Thune, the ranking member on the Senate’s transportation panel, said in a letter that LaHood “has the authority and flexibility in its budget … to find savings in other areas to avoid resorting to closing towers.”

The chief of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association – the AFL-CIO-affiliated union represented in San Marcos by Mears – took the FAA to task for its handling of the sequester.

“The FAA made a bad situation worse by not utilizing a well-thought-out process for evaluating the value of air traffic control towers before ordering their closure. Even if there was a good way to do this, the mandated budget cuts under sequestration have forced the FAA to prioritize its decision based on expediency rather than safety and efficiency,” union president Paul Rinaldi said.

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