FAA set to keep funding Castle Airport's control tower

rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.comMay 13, 2013 

— Castle Airport's air traffic control tower will remain open until the end of September, county officials announced Friday.

The Federal Aviation Administration decided Friday to continue funding the 149 FAA-contracted airport towers, including the one at Castle Airport, until the end of the federal fiscal year.

"We could not be more pleased with the news today, and it represents a lot of hard work amongst many different stakeholders," said Mark Hendrickson, director of commerce, aviation and economic development for Merced County.

Castle Airport's control tower was slated to close June 15, as part of the FAA's sequestration cuts. The agency must trim $637 million from its budget the rest of the fiscal year.

Hendrickson, who returned Friday from lobbying on the county's behalf in Washington, D.C., said the victory wouldn't be possible without the support of Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno.

"Congressman Costa really stepped up to the plate to fight for Castle Airport," Hendrickson said. "I can tell you firsthand that he and his staff were keenly aware of this issue and were fighting for it on a daily basis."

Costa's efforts included a letter to the FAA's administrator in March, urging him to re-evaluate the closure because of implications on safety, military support and disaster relief.

"Keeping this tower open means maintaining the safety and efficiency of the airport; it means helping train those who defend us and preparing for when the worst might happen," said Costa in a statement Friday.

"The tower is also central to the airport's ability to attract new clients and generate economic development in an area that desperately needs it," Costa said.

Merced Mayor Stan Thurston, president of Gemini Flight Support, agreed that Castle Airport adds significant value to the region's economic future.

"We have a lot of tenants interested in using Castle, and not having the tower would have made those efforts virtually impossible," Thurston said.

Not out of the woods

Although he applauded Friday's decision, Thurston said the control tower isn't completely out of the woods.

"We won the battle, but we haven't won the war yet," he said. "We have to keep our eye on the issue to make sure there's permanent funding in the next budget year."

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

But the airport's traffic has increased in the past few months, and officials estimate hitting 120,000 to 150,000 operations by the end of the calendar year.

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

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