The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

February 22, 2013

Sequestration casualty?

By James Neal, Staff Writer
Enid News and Eagle

ENID, Okla. — The air traffic control tower at Enid Woodring Regional Airport may be closed due to impending federal budget cuts.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and Federal Aviation Administration Administrator Michael Huerta Friday announced plans to cut $600 million in expenditures for the remainder of the 2013 fiscal year in the face of possible budget sequestration.

Sequestration includes sweeping federal budget cuts that automatically take effect March 1, if Congress and the president don’t come to a budget agreement.

In anticipation of the sequestration, LaHood and Huerta released a plan Friday that calls for furloughing the majority of the FAA’s 47,000 employees for one day per pay period; eliminating midnight shifts for air traffic controllers in more than 60 towers across the country; reducing preventive maintenance and equipment expenses; and closing more than 100 air traffic control towers at airports with less than 150,000 flight operations or 10,000 commercial operations per year.

That last cut would close the tower at Woodring, effectively closing the field to flights that require air traffic control.

Dan Ohnesorge, airport director, said the Woodring tower operates with four controllers who work in shifts between 6:30 a.m. and 9 p.m.

The controllers at Woodring are employees of FAA contractor Robinson Aviation, Ohnesorge said. 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.

Closing the tower at Woodring would have a significant impact on the airport’s operations, Ohnesorge said.

“It would hurt us quite a bit, especially in our ability to support military flights from Vance Air Force Base,” Ohnesorge said.

He said landings, takeoffs and low approaches by T-6 and T-1 training aircraft from Vance account for about 17,000 operations a year — about half the airport’s total annual usage.

“Normally, they’re not allowed to fly at airports where there’s no control tower, so that would hurt us pretty bad,” Ohnesorge said.

How the closure of Woodring’s tower would affect Vance training operations likely won’t be known until after the sequestration deadline passes.

“We won’t be able to make plans on how we will handle the situation until we know what Woodring’s plans are,” said 2nd Lt. Thomas Barger, of Vance’s Public Affairs office.

Ohnesorge said closing the tower also would impact civilian transient flights that currently operate out of Woodring.

The possible tower closing would not directly affect the airport’s current FAA funding, Ohnesorge said. He said Woodring receives $150,000 in FAA funds each year, which the airport can bank for up to three years to apply to specific projects.

While that funding is not yet on the chopping block, Ohnesorge said closing the tower will drastically cut the number of operations at Woodring, placing the airport at greater risk for future funding cuts.

“If you look at an airport that has a significant number of operations, versus one that has very few, logically speaking, the one that is busier would receive more funding,” Ohnesorge said. “If they’re cutting money across the board, then those with fewer operations are going to be more affected than those with the bulk of the operations. You can only spread money so thin.”

For now, Ohnesorge and other directors at federally funded, and operated facilities throughout the country are hoping Congress and the president will come to a budget agreement before the March 1 deadline.

“If the sequester happens, it’s going to have a pretty significant impact on us,” Ohnesorge said, “and I really hope it doesn’t unfold that way.”

Other Oklahoma airports slated to lose their control towers are: Ardmore Municipal; Lawton-Fort Sill Regional; University of Oklahoma Westheimer; Oklahoma City Wiley Post; and Stillwater Regional.

Overnight air traffic control shifts could be eliminated in Oklahoma City and Tulsa.

Senior Writer Jeff Mullin contributed to this story.