By Jody Serrano
Air traffic controller Matt Sheffield normally looks to the skies to lead planes safely to the ground or guide them at takeoff at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. But now he’s also looking at his family budget because of looming federal spending cuts.
Sheffield is one of about 40 Austin air traffic controllers to receive letters from the Federal Aviation Administration this week warning that his shifts will decrease by up to 88 hours, or one shift per two-week pay period, from April 7 through Sept. 30 unless Congress takes action.
He said the letter “certainly makes it very real. You know there’s certainly a very strong possibility that this could happen.”
The FAA is being forced to slash approximately $600 million from its budget and plans to close 19 air traffic control facilities in Texas, the third-highest number of closures nationwide. The Transportation Security Administration is also bracing for the automatic budget cuts, known as sequestration.
For the average traveler, officials say, the cuts could mean an extra 30- to 40-minute wait at security checkpoints, delayed landings and more planes stuck on the ground for longer periods.
Austin-Bergstrom’s tower will not be closed under the current plan, nor would towers at other major commercial airports in Texas, but shifts would be cut.
An American-Statesman analysis shows Texas will see the highest number of furloughs, affecting controllers in six cities. Cuts would affect approximately 33,000 air traffic controllers and air traffic technicians nationwide.
The tower closures would hit Central Texas especially hard, with possible shutdowns in Georgetown, San Marcos and College Station. FAA towers at small airports in San Antonio, Dallas, Houston and Fort Worth would also close.
City officials are talking to the federal government about not closing the Georgetown Municipal Airport, said Paul Brandenburg, the Georgetown city manager. The city is also looking at other options in the event federal funding is not restored.
The TSA, which staffs the security checkpoints at the nation’s airports, will institute a hiring freeze this month. TSA officials say they expect to have about 2,600 vacancies nationwide by September; there are 47,000 TSA employees.
Texas TSA representative Luis Casanova said it is crucial for travelers to get to the airport an hour and a half to two hours before their scheduled flights. He said the cuts will not affect March travel.
“As time goes on and we can’t fill positions, then perhaps we’ll see wait times spike a bit because there will be less screeners to handle the same volume of passengers,” Casanova said.
As he anticipates his furlough at Austin-Bergstrom, Sheffield is looking at cutting his cable TV, cellphone and summer vacation plans. He is a single father with two kids, and one is starting college this year.
A beginning air traffic controller would probably make about $60,000 a year, he said.
“It’s tough to see that a lot of (air traffic controllers) are worried about what’s going to happen to their livelihood and their families,” said Sheffield, the Austin area representative for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. “We take a lot of pride in operating the national airspace efficiently, and it’s going to be very hard to do that.”
Cities in Texas where air traffic control facilities could close:
Total cities affected: 16
Top states where FAA overnight shifts could be eliminated, by rank:
3. New York
Total number of states affected: 36 (Puerto Rico also affected)
Source: Federal Aviation Administration
CORRECTION: This story has been updated to correct the actions Georgetown city officials have taken to keep the city’s airport open.