Airports In Sugar Land and Conroe Prepare For Life Without Air Traffic Controllers

Aerial of Central Unit and Sugar Land Regional Airport in Texas [USGS]
As soon as April 1st, air traffic control towers at two Houston-area airports could close, causalities of the so-called "sequester" and Federal Aviation Administration spending cuts. Lawmakers are still trying to agree on a compromise over the next day or so, but if they don't, things could change drastically at busy airports in Sugar Land and Conroe.

It's one of the busiest regional airports in Texas, with more than 250 take-offs and landings a day, but Sugar Land Regional Airport might also soon be without an air traffic control tower.

The FAA's Contract Tower Program funds 6 full-time air traffic controllers, jobs that will go away as part of the spending cuts. The airport is owned by the city of Sugar Land.

"The airport itself would stay open, we simply wouldn't have an air traffic control tower and the situation at our airport would be a lot less safe."
 
 Doug Adolph is with the city.

"The immediate impact to the airport is the loss of six air traffic controllers, radar and weather systems that are operated in that tower. Specifically, six air traffic controllers for a budget impact of $600,000. There's 200 people employed at that airport. Hard decisions will have to be made."

The city has considered paying for the air traffic controllers itself, but that could be cost prohibitive long-term.

"We understand the need for the Feds to balance their budget. The City of Sugar Land does that every single year, but we continue to maintain service levels and provide a high level of services that our community expects. We think that the federal government can find a more responsible way to balance its budget as well."

Near Conroe, at Lone Star Executive Airport, director Scott Smith is in a similar situation. The airport, which has about 65,000 take-offs and landings a year, also has a tower and 6 full-time air traffic controllers who could be laid off. He says his airport would also stay open, but air traffic wouldn't be monitored. It would be up to the pilots themselves to watch out for other aircraft in so-called "uncontrolled airspace."

"That is essentially where anyone operating in the airspace or on the ground on the taxiway or runways, follows a set of rules and procedures established by the FAA where they make announcements on a common radio frequency, advising others who are listening where they are, where they're going to go and what their intentions are, whether they're in the air or taxiing on the ground."

About half of the traffic at Lone Star involves corporate or business aircraft, usually small jets. Smith says the tower closure would hurt business.

"I characterize it as a significant step backwards and a negative impact on both the current operation of the airport and the development steps that are underway right now today to develop the airport and meet the demand for business and pleasure aviation that's here."
 
Overall, more 200 air traffic control towers at regional airports across the nation could be casualties of the spending cuts. In a written statement to KUHF, the FAA says no final decisions have been made yet on the tower closures.

Bio photo of Jack Williams

Jack Williams

Director of News Programming

News Director Jack Williams has been with Houston Public Radio since August of 2000. He's also a reporter and anchor for Houston Public Radio's local All Things Considered segments...