The Edmond Sun

February 27, 2013

Air traffic controllers face down sequestration

Russell Hixson
Special to The Sun

STILLWATER — Massive federal spending cuts could force Stillwater Regional Airport’s air traffic control tower to close, laying off five workers and creating safety concerns.

The cuts would force the Federal Aviation Association to severely downsize its partnership program that lets outside companies bid on providing air traffic service.

The cuts would close six FAA contract towers in the state: Wiley Post Airport, Lawton Regional Airport, Enid’s Woodring Regional Airport, Ardmore Regional Airport, Norman’s Max Westheimer Airport and Stillwater Regional Airport.

Nearly 240 of the 252 contract airports nationwide also would be affected.

Stillwater Airport Manager Gary Johnson said closing the towers would be devastating to airport safety.

Stillwater is the fifth busiest airport in the state, guiding about 59,000 departures and arrivals last year — sometimes 400 a day. Johnson said the towers provide safe and efficient flow of traffic to and from an airport.

Without control towers, these airports would become what is known in the industry as uncontrolled.

Pilots would broadcast their intentions and communicate with each other to direct landings and takeoffs. Johnson said while this may be acceptable at low traffic airports, it can become a safety hazard during high traffic times.

Johnson also was critical of the decision to slash spending in a program already saving the FAA hundreds of thousands per tower by soliciting competitive bids instead of the tower being staffed by FAA employees.

“We think it’s a very broad brush approach to almost close an entire program that’s also very efficient,” Johnson said.

Johnson said maintaining a first-class airport is important to the city’s economy. Many businesses rely on the airport to make trips to Stillwater.

Stillwater’s industry partner, Asco Aerospace USA from Brussels, Belgium, used the airport many times as it evaluated the city as the site for its U.S. manufacturing facility, Johnson said. The manufacturer is expected to add 600 new jobs to the city.

When U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., visited Stillwater earlier month, he was convinced the sequester would move forward on the March 1 deadline.

Inhofe said the general consensus in Washington was the cuts would happen, and he had begun preparing a bill to help branches of the nation’s military cope.

Air traffic controllers George Gregson and Tyler Vanderberg are recent hires at Stillwater’s airport. Vanderberg started in September and Gregson in January. Neither are happy about the possibility of hunting for new jobs.

“We don’t have a plan, but we will survive some way,” Gregson said of his wife and children.

Vanderberg started his career in the military and requires further certification by the FAA to get an FAA job. But the waiting list for school is long and older controllers are not retiring, Vanderberg said. He is considering scrapping his career in the field entirely.

Vanderberg also has serious concerns about safety. Without a tower, pilots trying to broadcast at the same time would send out only silence and a radio crackle.

“It would be dangerous — and that’s if nothing goes wrong,” Vanderberg said, noting that flights can have equipment problems or other issues and need assistance from the ground.

Both are bracing for the sequester deadline, hoping cuts are averted.

“It would be devastating,” Vanderberg said.