San Marcos, Georgetown airports to lose tower personnel to federal cuts

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by MARK WIGGINS / KVUE News and photojournalist SCOTT MCKENNEY

Bio | Email | Follow: @MarkW_KVUE

Associated Press

Posted on March 22, 2013 at 3:28 PM

Updated Friday, Mar 22 at 6:32 PM

SAN MARCOS -- At San Marcos Municipal Airport, aircraft of all shapes and sizes take off and land like clockwork some 3,500 times a month.

The operation is coordinated from a practically brand new air traffic control tower built just two years ago, thanks to roughly $700,000 from the City of San Marcos and $1.5 million in federal stimulus money.

"Traffic has definitely increased since the tower opening and since some of the newer businesses have come out to the airport," said John Koenreich, general manager of the Skyport fixed base operator (FBO). "We've probably doubled traffic at the San Marcos airport, if not more than that."

But air traffic controllers here will soon be packing up as part of the automatic federal budget cuts triggered by Congressional budget deadlock.

For San Marcos Municipal, that means losing six full-time air traffic controllers. Employed by outside contractors paid by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the controllers staff the tower in pairs from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., seven days a week.

"When you mix all that kind of traffic together, having an extra set of eyes on you directing traffic definitely adds to safety," said Koenreich, who warns losing the tower could discourage many larger customers who prefer the safety of "controlled" airports with a tower.

Skyport certified flight instructor Logan Matter explains what the difference between controlled and "uncontrolled" airports means to pilots.

"Flying into a controlled tower, you're going to give them a call about ten miles away from the airport so they can figure out what type of airplane you are, how fast you're coming into the airport," said Matter. "Then they can properly sequence you in, to come in for landing or staying in the traffic pattern."

Without a tower, pilots are supposed to use a common radio channel to coordinate with each other. It's a situation Matter says isn't ideal.

"It's a big concern for the students coming in and out of this airport," Matter explained. "Because without anybody watching over them, they're not as experienced as actual veteran pilots that you see flying around a lot of the time."

Many cities have taken steps to take over funding for tower operations as federal money dries up, something Koenreich says could help prevent high-flying business from bypassing San Marcos.

"I would hope to see something like that come about," said Koenreich. "Airports do bring a lot of business to the communities in the way of retail and hotels, rent cars, restaurants, that type of thing, not to mention the revenue that they get from fuel sales."

Airport officials tell KVUE talks are underway at the local city and county level to identify potential solutions to maintain tower operations. The FAA plans to begin a four-week phased closure process starting April 7.

Once the controllers leave, the actual building will stay -- a towering reminder of federal frustration.

For the full list of FAA tower closures -- CLICK HERE.

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