Thursday, October 23, 2014

Sequester cuts grounding safety at some area airports

By BOBBY BURCH, Herald Staff Writer | 3/28/2013

Federal spending cuts are now boarding without concerns for safety, the owner of a local aviation company said this week.  

A group of sweeping spending reductions, collectively known as the sequester, are slated to close 149 air traffic control towers April 7, including two in the area, causing JR Dodson to question the Federal Aviation Administration’s commitment to safety.

Federal spending cuts are now boarding without concerns for safety, the owner of a local aviation company said this week.  

A group of sweeping spending reductions, collectively known as the sequester, are slated to close 149 air traffic control towers April 7, including two in the area, causing JR Dodson to question the Federal Aviation Administration’s commitment to safety.

“It would basically be like if all of a sudden you took out all the traffic lights and stop signs in a city,” Dodson said.

“Would traffic still function? Yes. But would it be as safe? Probably not,” the owner of Dodson International Parts, Inc., which is based in Rantoul, added.

Founded in 1984, Dodson International acts as the fixed-base operator for Johnson County’s New Century AirCenter, providing it such aeronautical services as fueling, maintenance, aircraft rentals and sales, Dodson said. Among five such operations in the Sunflower State and two in northeast Kansas, New Century’s tower is set to be closed as part of federal cuts that began March 1 to reduce spending. If congress doesn’t act before April 7, the sequester also will close Johnson County Executive Airport’s tower, which is about 8 miles from New Century.

Coupled with New Century’s proximity to the executive airport and Gardner’s municipal airport, the towers’ closures could cause trouble for pilots, Dodson said.

“It think it will directly impact safety up here,” Dodson, son of Bob Dodson, who owns Ottawa’s Dodson Aviation, said. “Both the Gardner and the executive airport have a lot of aircraft training for a lot of small airplanes, and then you have a mix of business aircraft and small aircraft here at New Century.”

Some members of Congress agree with Dodson’s sentiment that the closure of such control towers will adversely affect safety.

“The Administration’s decision to shutter these air traffic control towers is short-sighted and dangerous,” U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., said in a press release. “It is clear that [the FAA] is putting its top-line message, that spending cannot be cut without severe consequences, before the safety and well-being of Americans.”

Moran said he’s fought against the FAA’s plan to close the towers via an amendment to the continuing resolution, but the proposal was blocked from a vote. The amendment was supported by the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, Moran’s office said, and several other aviation industry groups.

“Although my amendment to the [continuing resolution] to save the control towers and protect public safety was blocked, this fight is not over,” Moran said. “The Contract Tower Program is one of the most efficiently-run programs in the FAA, and it should be protected from an arbitrary and unfair 75 percent cut. I will continue my work to make certain the [FAA] puts the safety of air travelers first, and will actively encourage the FAA to reconsider its decision. I have already spoken to the chairperson of the Appropriations Committee to seek out other avenues to protect the 149 control towers slated for closure.”

Despite Moran’s efforts and concerns for safety, the towers still are targeted for closure in 10 days. In Kansas, the towers to be closed include Philip Billard Municipal in Topeka; Hutchinson Municipal in Hutchinson; New Century Air Center in Olathe; Johnson County Executive in Olathe; and Manhattan Regional in Manhattan.

Without a control tower at New Century, Dodson said, air traffic will function similar to that of Ottawa’s municipal airport. Flying aircraft will broadcast on a  UNICOM — or universal communications — frequency, which will provide the airport an aircraft’s relative position and intentions, he said. As such, other aircraft must monitor and look for each other without the benefit of radar guidance from air controllers that would relay aircrafts’ location and intentions.

In conjunction with his safety concerns, Dodson said the lack of an air control tower at New Century might adversely affect his business as a fixed-base operator.

“I think it will have somewhat of a negative impact on the number of operations [at New Century],” Dodson said. “But I think the bigger impact will be on safety.”

As a commercially rated pilot, Dodson said the diminished presence of control towers will keep him more vigilant while taking to the skies. Without having comprehensive knowledge of other aircrafts’ locations, Dodson said, he’ll likely feel more anxious in the wild, blue yonder.

“It will have me on my toes a lot more,” Dodson said. “It will give me a little bit more trepidation, particularly in bad weather. ... Without control tower guidance looking for other traffic and everything it will certainly give you some trepidation when you’re close to the airport for fear of somebody that you don’t know about and haven’t been warned about.”

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