Despite earlier threats that $85 billion in federal budget cuts forced by sequestration could cost Spinks Airport in Burleson its air traffic controllers, the airport’s air traffic control tower will remain open at least through the end of September, Airport Manager Aaron Barth said.
Spinks is one of five municipal airports in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex at which air traffic control towers had initially been targeted for closure due to Federal Aviation Administration cutbacks forced by sequestration.
But, Barth said, Spinks and Grand Prairie Municipal Airport will keep their air traffic controllers, thanks to a cost-share program in which the local airport pays about 20 percent of the costs for the controllers and the FAA pays the remaining amount.
Barth said that the cost-share program in which Spinks participates is a separate line-item expense in the FAA’s budget.
“It’s already been paid for through the end of the fiscal year. The FAA has already allocated the money to pay their portion for the air traffic controllers at Spinks, and we will just continue paying our portion each month as usual,” Barth said. “We don’t know right now what will happen after Sept. 30.”
Air traffic control towers at 13 other Texas airports will also likely remain open for now, thanks to a proposal last week by the aviation division of the Texas Department of Transportation to fund those towers. The air traffic control towers had been set to start closing on April 7.
The Texas Transportation Commission is holding an emergency meeting today in Austin to vote on the proposal for TxDOT to provide funding to keep air traffic controllers in place at the 13 airports. North and Northeast Texas airports included in the 13 are Dallas Executive Airport (formerly Redbird Airport), Collin County Regional Airport in McKinney, TSTC Waco and Tyler Pounds Regional Airport, according to a statement released by TxDOT.
The remaining nine are New Braunfels, Brownsville, Easterwood Field College Station, Lone Star Executive Houston, Georgetown Municipal, San Marcos Municipal, Sugarland Regional, Stinson Municipal in San Antonio and Victoria Regional.
TxDOT Executive Director Phil Wilson said that one reason the agency is proposing to step in and fund air traffic control towers at the 13 airports is that their local communities rely on the airports to remain open for economic reasons.
But safety is the primary concern, said Transportation Commissioner Fred Underwood.
“We felt a need to take immediate action for the air travelers and business aircraft that use these airports,” Underwood said in the TxDOT statement.
Barth said in the event Spinks Airport did lose its air traffic controllers, it would join the large number of smaller airports in Texas and around the country that are “uncontrolled,” but that traffic into and out of the airport would continue.
But instead of relying on air traffic controllers to help them navigate safely into and out of the airport, the pilots would use the Common Traffic Advisory Frequency to announce their position and latitude, Barth said. Such a system requires cooperation and coordination between the pilots using the airport.
And while many smaller airports operate fine without control towers, safety is certainly an issue at busier airports, especially those in the DFW area where there is so much air traffic.
If Spinks Airport were to lose its control tower, “the level of safety would be diminished. That’s undeniable,” Barth said.
Barth said that Spinks Airport has seen “60,000-plus operations — landings and take-offs — in the last 12 months. For us, going to an uncontrolled tower [with that much traffic] would be a significant change.”
Still, even if Spinks and airports like it were to lose their control towers, “I would say the bast majority would adapt and keep going,” Barth said. “Pilots are trained to [fly into or out of] controlled airports and uncontrolled airports. Pilots are well-versed in how to handle themselves in either kind of situation.”
Barth said Spinks is a “general aviation reliever airport.” While larger airports have significant commercial operations, he said, it can be difficult for smaller corporate aircraft and especially single- or double-engine planes to navigate in and around such heavy traffic by much larger aircraft.
“That’s what airports like this one [Spinks] are for,” Barth said, “to relieve the congestion at the larger airports” by offering options for smaller planes and commercial operations.
Between 20 percent and 30 percent of Spinks’ traffic is corporate, with the rest comprising flight training operations, smaller aircraft and some helicopter traffic, Barth said.
He said there are “around 100 to 125 jobs, at minimum,” at the airport, and that there are five to seven employees in Spinks’ air traffic control tower.