Three North Texas airports won't lose traffic controllers after all

Posted Friday, Mar. 22, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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Three airport towers in North Texas that were initially targeted for closure have been spared, the Federal Aviation Administration announced Friday in releasing the final list of 149 airport towers that will close on April 7 as part of the budget cuts required by federal sequestration.

Arlington, Grand Prairie and Fort Worth Spinks air traffic control towers will remain open as the FAA reconsidered its decision since closing the towers would have "a negative impact on the national interest."

The tower at Arlington's municipal airport will remain open because of its proximity to Dallas/Fort Worth Airport, less than 20 miles from the nation's third-busiest airport. Arlington's airport also handles a significant amount of private jet traffic when Cowboys Stadium hosts large sporting events such as the NCAA basketball regional games next weekend.

Fort Worth Spinks and Grand Prairie will remain open as they are part of 16 federal contract towers under a "cost share" program where a Congressional statute sets asides funds every fiscal year to operate the towers.

Two North Texas air traffic control towers - Dallas Executive and Collin County Regional airports - will be shut down under the plan.

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. All pilots are trained to fly using those procedures.

Arlington officials were relieved to learn that the Arlington Municipal Airport traffic control tower would not close next month as expected because of federal budget cuts.

Councilman Robert Rivera, whose district includes the airport, called keeping the control tower operational a matter of public safety.

"We are talking about a part of Arlington that has a dense neighborhood population. Across from the airport, you have schools, the Highlands and Interstate 20 in the pathway leading up to the landing strip," Rivera said.

"Controlled air space is important not only to those flying in but to everyone in the city."

In addition to its usual flights, Mayor Robert Cluck said the airport experiences heavy air traffic on days when special events are held at Cowboys Stadium in the entertainment district.

"With the Cowboys and big sell-out games that place is absolutely full," Cluck said of the airport's success. "I don't think it would be if it wasn't controlled airspace. I think they saw the wisdom of keeping it open."

Arlington has 20 businesses at the airport with an estimated 700 employees. City leaders had been discussing the potential impact of losing its controlled airspace with federal lawmakers for weeks. The FAA will continue to fund traffic controllers and a manager for daily operation of the tower, which opened seven years ago.

"It's a great day for Arlington because our voice was heard in Washington, D.C.," Rivera said. "Our team effort was able to convince them of the significance of our airport."

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 to help attract 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 safety at non-towered airports," FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said in a statement.

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.

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.

Airlines have yet to say whether they will continue offering service to airports that lose tower staff.

The 149 air traffic facilities slated to begin closing on April 7 are all staffed by contract employees who are not FAA staffers.

The agency is also still considering eliminating overnight shifts at 72 air traffic facilities, including the overnight shift at Fort Worth's Meacham Airport and some at major airports like Chicago's Midway International and General Mitchell Airport in Milwaukee. There was no word Friday on when a decision will come.

Safety concerns

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 that made the U.S. aviation network the safest in the world.

Hundreds of small airports around the country routinely operate without controllers. Pilots are trained to watch for other aircraft and announce their position over the radio during approaches, landings and takeoffs.

But the overall air system's safety is built on redundancy, and taking away the controller's extra set of eyes is like removing stop signs or traffic lights from city intersections and forcing drivers to be more vigilant and cautious, says Paul Rinaldi, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.

Some aviation experts say the elimination of overnight shifts should have been carried out regardless of the sequester at facilities that don't see enough traffic to justify the expense of staffing towers.

This report includes material from The Associated Press and Bloomberg News.

Susan Schrock, 817-709-7578

Twitter: @susanschrock

Andrea Ahles, 817-390-7631

Twitter: @Sky_Talk

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