Sunday, April 15, 2012

Officials fighting to keep 259th Air Traffic Control Squadron at Alexandria International Airport

Scott Gammel (left), Alexandria International Airport manager, and Pat Thompson, a Department of Defense employee who supervises Alexandria’s air traffic controllers, hope that the 259th Louisiana Air National Guard Unit will be allowed to stay at their jobs. 
 Leandro Huebner/ 

Show your support

 Want to keep the Louisiana Air National Guard 259th Air Traffic Controller Squadron at Alexandria International Airport? Here are ways to show your support:

»On its website,, the England Authority has an online petition. On the main page there is a "Click Here to Support the Effort." The petition will be forwarded to Congress.

Senior Airman Justin Dauzart and Staff Sgt. Clay Guillot guided the Delta Air Lines passenger jet to a picture-perfect landing on a picture-perfect day this past week.

The airmen have spent a few years in the control tower at Alexandria International Airport. But this might be Dauzart's and Guillot's last April as air traffic controllers at AEX if the Air Force can't be persuaded to drop plans that would disband the Louisiana Air National Guard 259th Air Traffic Control Squadron.

Dauzart and Guillot, who've both been in war zones, do not want their 110-airman unit to be broken up and transferred to as-yet unannounced U.S. locales to serve in the Air Force's drone program.

"I'd like to stay here," Dauzart said. "My family's in Alexandria. That's the main reason I wanted to come here."

Central Louisiana wants them to stay, too.

Officials at England Airpark, which operates the airport, are waging a campaign to keep the 259th here, where training is ongoing. Airpark officials are encouraging Louisiana's congressional delegation, legislators, the governor, mayors, councils, parents and kids to speak up, sign up and keep up the pressure in hopes the Air Force will change its plans.

"If (the 259th) is effective and efficient, why shouldn't it be saved?" said Jon Grafton, airpark executive director.

Grafton also said that if current Air Force plans prevail and the 259th is moved, AEX will continue 24-hour military and commercial operations.

It might, however, make the England Authority dig into its budget, Grafton said.

According to records and interviews with air travel officials, the 259th:

»Has a $3 million annual direct impact to the local economy.

»Lands private, commercial and military aircraft 24 hours a day.

»Oversees coastal disaster air operations, such as when Hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit in 2005 and AEX was the launching and landing pad for emergency aircraft when air facilities in South Louisiana were knocked out.

»Supports Fort Polk operations by guiding in military aircraft, usually between 10 p.m. and 4 a.m., and ferrying in and flying out Army soldiers on commercial flights.

»Supports daily U.S. Department of Immigration and Naturalization flights that fly to Central and South America.

»Employs military flight procedures for commercial flights, which Grafton said is safer than the private flight rules.

»Is ready to deploy anywhere in the world at a moment's notice to set up mobile aircraft control operations.

The 259th provides "an absolutely critical service to the airport and the community up there," said Brad Branch, Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development aviation director.

"They've also been extremely critical during disaster relief-efforts, specifically Katrina," Branch said.

Since 1997, the 259th has manned the control tower at AEX, overseen ground radar equipment and maintained controller flight equipment at AEX, one of only three Louisiana airports -- the other two are New Orleans and Shreveport -- with flights 24 hours a day.

AEX has had 24-hour flights since 1993, when England Air Force Base was deactivated and England Airpark was born. From 1993 until 1997, AEX employed contract air traffic controllers.

"From the very beginning we were a 24-hour tower," Grafton said, adding that landing and taking off at AEX are "infinitely better" since the 259th took over in 1997.

Last year, the 259th installed a ground control approach -- GCA. The GCA system allows controllers to guide pilots into AEX with radio instructions only, simulating zero-visibility conditions.

Pat Thompson, a Department of Defense employee who supervises AEX controllers, said that besides the commercial and private-plane flights overseen by the 259th, airmen conduct dozens or more "touch and go" military pilot and air controller training exercises every day.

"Our safety record is extremely good," Thompson said.

If the Air Force transfers the 259th, it could put a financial burden on AEX. Now, the Federal Aviation Administration now pays the Air Force about $250,000 a year for the 259th's services, Grafton said,

The $250,000 amount is about what the FAA pays for contract air traffic controllers at Chennault International Airport in Lake Charles, Executive Director Randy Robb said. He said the Lake Charles airport's hours are 6 a.m. until 10 p.m. Channault does not provide commercial airline service; companies located on the industrial site have contracts to refurbish military aircraft.

At AEX, the FAA would continue to pay for tower controllers, Grafton said, but the costs of running a 24-hour operation at AEX would exceed what the FAA allots.

"(England Airpark) would have to find a way to essentially continue that tower operation," DOTD's Branch said. "But what it's going to mean, though, is they're going to have to dig into their budget and/or find external funds. ... That may take away from infrastructure and maintenance on their facility.

"That could have a major impact, especially on a commercial-service airport," Branch said.

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