By Ben Lane, TSB Staff
Coverage of the fight over government spending has dominated the nightly newscasts for the last several weeks. News of the sequester and its automatic spending cuts have been unavoidable. Until now, it appeared that the sequester would not have any impact on the daily lives of McKinney’s residents. That may soon change.
Unless a compromise is reached either in the halls of Congress in Washington D.C. or the city council chamber in McKinney, the air traffic control tower at McKinney’s Collin County Regional Airport will close on April 7.
The air traffic control tower operations in McKinney would fall victim to spending cuts that would decrease the funding for the Federal Aviation Administration. Ken Wiegand, Executive Director of the Collin County Regional Airport, said he and his staff would continue working in the hopes of keeping the tower open.
“We’re trying to work with Congress on this,” Wiegand told TownSquareBuzz.com. “Hopefully we can keep the towers open as part of the continuing resolution.”
If an agreement is not reached in Washington, Wiegand will ask the McKinney City Council to take over the funding of the air traffic control operations at the airport.
“To carry on operations, we’d need $53,624 a month to outsource it to the same company that’s operating the tower right now,” Weigand said. That amount would cover the six controllers per day in 16-hour shifts. A $5,000 one-time insurance fee would also need to be paid to continue operations. Wiegand said those rates are good through the end of 2013.
According to Wiegand, the air traffic control operations at Collin County Regional are currently not operated by FAA air traffic controllers but by independent contractors as part of the FAA’s contract tower program. The FAA’s contract tower program is used by smaller airports and stands to be the victim of FAA spending cuts.
Wiegand complimented the contract employees who staff the tower at Collin County Regional. “Contract employees operate more efficiently (than their FAA counterparts) and contract towers are safe and efficient,” Wiegand said.
Wiegand will take his proposal for keeping the air traffic control tower open before the airport board on Thursday. If they approve of the plan, Wiegand will present the plan to the city council for their approval.
If the city council decides that the city should not take on the costs of continuing the tower operations, the air traffic control tower at Collin County Regional will close.
According to Wiegand, closing the air traffic control tower does not mean the airport will close, but it would have a dramatic impact on the amount of traffic that the airport handles.
Wiegand, a former pilot, explained that it is the pilots’ choice as to which airport they use. “Pilots weigh everything…fuel costs, ease of access, safety and security when choosing an airport,” he said. Wiegand also said that all pilots are trained to operate out of “uncontrolled airports,” which are airports without an air traffic control tower.
Wiegand said that pilots all have access to a common frequency that is used to coordinate takeoffs and landings at smaller, uncontrolled airports. But Wiegand worries that pilots won’t want to use Collin County Regional without a functional air traffic control tower.
“Uncontrolled airports don’t have the same amount of safety as an airport using a manned, trained tower,” Wiegand said. “The danger can be avoided with positive air traffic control,” he said.
Wiegand stated that air traffic controllers do far more than just tell planes when to take off and land. “The tower provides many other services. They’re our weather observers, the watch after safety on the ground, look for vehicles on the airport grounds, and protect against an incursion on the runway,” he said.
“That’s what we stand to lose,” Wiegand said.
The impact for McKinney’s citizens would be felt in the loss of tax revenue that is gained by taxing planes that use the airport. Wiegand stated that the airport is a “user fee airport,” meaning the planes that use the airport pay for the “security and safety” that Collin County Regional provides. “We attract a lot more business and tax base than what we spend,” he said.
If the tower does close, Wiegand fears it could lead to large businesses not choosing to relocate to McKinney. That could have an impact on both the tax base and the job market in McKinney.
“If we (the city of McKinney) want to continue to attract businesses with aircraft…if we want to continue to have that advantage for businesses, we have to have a functioning air traffic control,” Wiegand said.