The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

March 14, 2013

Still on chopping block: Woodring air traffic control could be saved from cuts

By James Neal, Staff Writer
Enid News and Eagle

ENID, Okla. — Air traffic control services at Enid Woodring Regional Airport still are on the chopping block for sequestration cuts, but possibly may be saved due to the airport’s role in training student pilots at Vance Air Force Base.

In anticipation of sequestration, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and Federal Aviation Administration Administrator Michael Huerta announced Feb. 22 air traffic control towers would be closed at more than 100 airports with less than 150,000 flight operations and fewer than 10,000 commercial operations per year.

The FAA cuts also furloughed the majority of the FAA’s 47,000 employees for one day per pay period; eliminated midnight shifts for air traffic controllers in more than 60 towers across the country; and reduced preventive maintenance and equipment expenses. The cuts were set to go into effect with implementation of sequestration March 1.

Woodring, with an annual traffic load of approximately 36,000 flight operations, was on the Feb. 22 list of airports expected to lose their control tower services.

The controllers at Woodring are employees of FAA contractor Robinson Aviation, said airport director Dan Ohnesorge. According to the Robinson Aviation website, the company holds a contract with FAA and other federal agencies to provide air traffic control services at 96 airports.

FAA letter on sequestration

As of this week, Woodring’s four air traffic controllers still are on the job, as the FAA continues to sort through exactly which airports, if not all, from the Feb. 22 list will lose their air traffic controllers.

In response to email questions from the Enid News & Eagle, Ohnesorge said this week there has been no date given for discontinuation of air traffic control services.

That possibility may be averted for some airports, if they can demonstrate a compelling “national interest” to retain air traffic control services, according to a March 5 letter from Huerta to all of the potentially affected airports.

In the letter, Huerta wrote “the FAA is reviewing its list of locations where it plans to discontinue air traffic control services, to identify any locations where the national interest would be adversely affected by tower closure.”

“Negative impact on the national interest is the only criterion the FAA will use for deciding to continue services to an airport that falls below the activity threshold,” Huerta wrote.

Airports were invited to submit input by Wednesday, and make their case for “national interest” at their facility — an interest that could save some of the air traffic control towers.

Mike Cooper, city of Enid military liaison and chairman of Oklahoma Strategic Military Planning Commission, said Woodring, Vance and OSMPC all submitted letters to FAA before the Wednesday deadline.

Cooper said Woodring has a compelling case for national interest due to the airport’s proximity to and long-standing use by training squadrons at Vance.

“We probably have one of the most efficient initial pilot training bases out there,” Cooper said, due in part to the base’s proximity to and availability of Woodring’s runway.

“At the end of day, it’s all about improving mission capability and saving money,” Cooper said. “And, for national interest, it (Woodring) clearly helps them (Vance) have a better training experience, it improves mission capability and helps them reduce cost.”

According to Air Force figures provided by Cooper, Vance student pilots and instructors flew almost 18,000 flight operations at Woodring last year — more than 50 per day — including landings, takeoffs, instrument approaches and low approaches.

Cooper said Woodring’s proximity to Vance — about 6 miles to the east — cuts down significantly on fuel costs for those missions and increases operating tempo.

He said Woodring also serves as an important emergency landing field for Vance pilots.

“Woodring is one of those assets that definitely adds to mission capability and reduces costs,” Cooper said. “I think we have a real good case, but we never know how that will work out.”

Woodring and other airports waiting to hear if their control tower services will be cut may not have long to wait.

Lynn Lunsford, FAA Mid-States public affairs manager, said senior FAA and Department of Transportation officials will be reviewing airports’ national interest submissions “over the next several days,” and a final list of control tower closures is expected “sometime next week.”

If Woodring does lose its control tower, the effect on military training flights at the runway would be immediate.

Ohnesorge said Vance operations at Woodring would be “significantly reduced” without a control tower.

He said Vance pilots would not be able to conduct landings and takeoffs at Woodring, and could perform low approaches “with restrictions and at a significantly lower rate.”

Ohnesorge said civilian traffic still would be able to land at Woodring, but would have to clear themselves for landing without an air traffic controller.

He said instrument flight rules (IFR) flight operations would be “significantly slower than now,” and pilots landing under instrument conditions would be “controlled/cleared for the approach, but will have to clear themselves to land.”

Ohnesorge said corporate air traffic still could land at Woodring without an air traffic controller, but “the corporate/commercial operator may think twice about coming into an environment where there is no controlling facility.”