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Deal could keep municipal air traffic control towers open

TxDOT to vote on funding towers set to close under federal sequestration

The Texas Department of Transportation announced Thursday it intends to provide funding to keep several air traffic control towers open at 13 municipal airports.

The towers are set to close early next month, victims of federal sequestration.

In a news release, the agency said it "intends to fund continued service of air traffic controllers when federal funding goes away as a result of sequestration, or budget cuts."

The funding is pending approval by the Texas Transportation Commission, which plans to hold an emergency session next week to act on the funding.

"Safety is the primary reason we felt a need to take immediate action for the air travelers and business aircraft that use these airports," said Commissioner Fred Underwood, of the Texas Transportation Commission. "I am proud of our leaders for taking this extraordinary measure to ensure that those relying on these municipal airports will be able to depart and arrive safely and efficiently."

Stinson Municipal Airport in San Antonio was informed earlier this month they would lose federal funding for its FAA air traffic controllers and the Stinson tower would close starting April 7.

Instead of a controller, pilots would rely on something called UNICOM, a universal communication system that requires pilots to let each other know where they are in the air and when they are taking off and landing.

"Pilots are familiar with it. They know the system," said airport spokesman Rich Johnson. "It's something that's used at hundreds of airports around the country and used at our airport at Stinson after 10 p.m."

Johnson said the UNICOM system is safe, but it's always better to have a second set of eyes on the skies. He's hoping TxDOT can come to the rescue and keep the Stinson tower open.

"We're kind of cautiously optimistic about what's going on," Johnson said. "It's something that we would look forward to, something that we would obviously welcome. It's always nice to have the extra layer of communication."

Local pilots and flight school operators were also optimistic about the new funding source.

"If they found the money and we can see some of that and keep the tower going, that's absolutely superb," said Brian Wells, assistant chief instructor at Sky Safety flight school. "I really don't want to see the tower close. It would really impact major aviation safety."

Wells has been worried about safety at the airport since it was announced the tower would likely close due to the automatic budget cuts.

He said Stinson is very busy with traffic from corporate jets, flight schools and the military and because it's so close to the runways at Lackland and Kelly, it can be a confusing place to fly into.

"People who are coming in here cross-country from elsewhere sometimes have to be told, 'Are you sure you’re looking at the right airport?' because they'll line themselves up for Kelly," Wells said. "If this facility is uncontrolled, that could be a problem."

Another concern Wells has is the impact the tower closure would have on pilots in training.

Private pilots are required to log at least three take-offs and landings at airports with a manned tower. If Stinson and the other regional towers were closed, that would force the student pilots to meet their requirements at busier airports like San Antonio International or Austin-Bergstrom International Airport.

"It wouldn't be a danger or anything like that but it would be a little disconcerting to be mixing student traffic in with airliners going into San Antonio or Bergstrom or someplace like that," Wells said.

If TxDOT approves the funding for the towers, it would keep the towers open at Stinson, San Marcos Municipal and New Braunfels Municipal airports.

"Flying is an integral part of commerce in Texas," said Phil Wilson, TxDOT executive director. "Local communities are counting on these airports to remain open for continued economic success."

For a list of recent stories Tim Gerber has done, click here.


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