Costa pushes to save Castle air tower

rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.comMarch 16, 2013 

— Castle Airport's traffic control tower is slated to close on April 7 because of the Federal Aviation Administration's sequestration cuts, unless the administration reconsiders, officials said Wednesday.

This week, U.S. Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, wrote a letter to the FAA's administrator, urging him to re-evaluate the closure.

"Shutting down this tower will clearly jeopardize aviation safety and efficiency at the airport, slow down our economic recovery, damage our national security, and impede our ability to respond to natural disasters and public health emergencies," Costa wrote.

Mark Hendrickson, director of commerce, aviation and economic development for Merced County, said Costa's letter could make a difference in keeping the tower open.

"We absolutely believe the letter is of critical importance, and hope the FAA will reconsider," he said. "The county is greatly appreciative of the Congressman's support of this issue."

Hendrickson said the FAA would reconsider shutting down some of the 238 towers on the closure list based on the national implications of the closure.

Costa's letter listed many of those implications, including Castle's role in direct military support and disaster relief. "We have articulated effectively that the tower at Castle Airport should remain open for those reasons," Hendrickson said. "We have not given up hope. And we remain very hopeful that they will reconsider and realign their priorities in the days to come."

Hendrickson also appealed to the FAA this week, hoping to sway the closure decision.

Safety and economy

Castle Airport's control tower ended up on the closure list because it didn't meet certain criteria -- 10,000 commercial operations or 150,000 total aircraft operations per year.

However, the airport's traffic has grown significantly in the past few months, largely because of Sierra Academy of Aeronautics student pilots.

The airport is on target to hit about 120,000 to 150,000 operations by the end of the calendar year, and the control tower ensures aircraft safety, Hendrickson said.

Jim Price, vice president of operations at Gemini Flight Support, said losing the tower would mean losing the airport's military training business.

"We have been contracted for fuel support for all military aircraft, and that requires a control tower," he said. "With this control tower shutting down, our military business will go away 100 percent. Economically, that would have a huge impact."

Along with losing the military business, the tower's closure could impact first responders and the ability to deal with natural disasters, he said.

Above all, officials are concerned about the potential impact on air safety.

"It's a harrowing experience every day when you have multiple aircraft in one area," Price said, citing the 450 to 600 aircraft movements a day. "It's equivalent to a traffic jam, and it becomes a real safety concern at that point."

"Hopefully, they'll re-evaluate," Hendrickson said, "and come up with a better solution rather than compromising safety."

"Without question, if the FAA does not change their perspective on this issue as it relates to Castle, it will impact us from both a safety and efficiency standpoint," Hendrickson added.

People can help save Castle Airport's control tower by writing to U.S. Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, he said.

Reporter Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.com.

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