By Carol Christian
If federal budget cuts continue as announced, the Federal Aviation Administration will quit operating Sugar Land Regional Airport’s control tower.
That scenario includes so many unknowns that it’s hard to say what will actually happen, said Sugar Land spokesman Doug Adolph.
“We’re still on the list of potential tower closures,” Adolph said. “We’re told we have until March 13 to make a case to the FAA as to why closure would have a national consequence.”
As things stand now, the tower is slated to close April 13.
If that happens, Adolph said the options boil down to two: operating without a control tower or finding about $750,000 a year to pay six air traffic controllers, whose salaries are now paid by the FAA on a contract basis.
Having no tower at all, which is the case at a number of smaller airports where pilots use visual flight rules, is a bad option, he said.
“Pilots would be on their own to land and take off,” he said.
That would be a step backward for an airport that handles 250 flights every day and has an 8,000-foot runway that’s longer than any at Houston’s William P. Hobby Airport.
“We can accommodate the largest of the corporate jets,” Adolph said.
Losing the tower would undoubtedly translate into losing business, although the size of the impact is unknown.
“When you have companies that have multi-million-dollar Lear jets that are choosing where to conduct business, you would have to think that not having controlled air space would impact those decisions,” he said.
The FAA’s Feb. 22 announcement of possible tower closures listed about half the control towers nationwide, according to a news release from the U.S. Contract Tower Association in Alexandria, Va.
On the list were 189 contract towers (including the one at Sugar Land’s airport) and 49 towers staffed by FAA employees.
Another confusing element about the proposal to close a large percentage of control towers, Adolph said, is that many in the industry had understood that towers with contracted workers were funded through the FAA’s Airport Improvement Program supported by user fees, such as fuel sales, rather than federal tax dollars.
“The sequester should have never impacted the contract tower program,” Adolph said. “It appears to us that the rules have changed at the last minute. The fact is, it’s real and something we have to deal with regardless of why.”
Purchased by the city in 1980, the regional airport has seen about $53 million worth of improvements over the years.
When the control tower opened in 2001, it was a catalyst for more amenities at the facility which now employs 200 people, Adolph said.
As the state’s largest “reliever” airport for general aviation, Sugar Land Regional takes overflow from George Bush Intercontinental and Hobby airports.
“It happens on a regular basis,” Adolph said. “It’s a resource that would not be available (if the tower closes).”