At Kan. airport, fliers back sequester cuts . . . but, wait, they’re closing the control tower?

GARDEN CITY, Kan. — The federal budget cuts were still an abstraction as American Eagle Flight 3429 crossed the snow-crusted plains into southwestern Kansas. Kevin Colvin, a construction manager flying in for work, looked out of the window at the tiny airport below.

“They make it sound like, ‘Oh my God! We’re going to die if we make these cuts!’ ” he said, eating a potato chip, the cuts still two days away. “I think it’s a bunch of BS.”

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The cuts came into clearer focus Thursday. Garden City Regional Airport would lose its air traffic controllers, saving the federal government $318,756 and leaving pilots to handle landings, takeoffs and weather conditions mostly by themselves.

“Oh,” said Dave Unruh, a retired farmer who heard the news as he waited for a flight to Dallas. “Is that part of the deal?”

By Friday, people in this solidly conservative area faced the reality that it was.

“Great!” said Terryl Spiker, a rancher and banker catching the 2 p.m. American Eagle out for the weekend. He crossed his arms over his flannel shirt and smiled. “Just cut a little more.”

As sequestration dawned, reactions in Kansas’s 1st Congressional District ranged from disbelief to concern to a kind of defiant joy that the $85 billion in mandatory spending cuts had arrived at last. In the 2012 House elections, voters here overwhelmingly backed tea party conservative Tim Huelskamp, who recently hailed sequestration as “the first significant tea party victory” in Washington.

Not everyone here sees it that way. Mayor David Crase and airport director Rachelle Powell spent last week writing letters to Huelskamp and other elected officials urging them to save Garden City’s tower, one of 238 at relatively small airports across the country set to close beginning April 1. Crase said the closure would “undo years of investments” at the local, state and federal level. Powell warned of a decline in flights and associated revenue from fuel or fees or dinners at the popular restaurant Napoli’s at the Flight Deck. Though it was too soon to know, she worried that American Eagle might curtail the only regional jet service in and out of southwestern Kansas — a constellation of gridded towns that dissolve into farm fields and ranches and some of the largest meatpacking plants in the world.

Mostly, Powell was worried about what she described as “a severe negative impact” on airport safety. While the early and late American Eagle flights take off and land at a time when the tower is closed, Powell said, air traffic controllers guide the two afternoon flights, along with occasional military jet training runs, medical evacuation flights, casino charters and private jets that have delivered people such as Dick Cheney, Harrison Ford and Huelskamp himself to the high plains.

If the tower is eliminated completely, those responsibilities revert to pilots, who must communicate among themselves to coordinate landings, takeoffs and emergency responses.

Jeff De Busk, an air traffic control manager and father of six who expects to lose his job, recounted two recent near-collisions — both involving pilots on the wrong radio channel — averted by the tower. “I understand we have to cut the budget,” he said. “But this? It just doesn’t make any sense.”

It was around 1 p.m. Friday, and De Busk was sitting before work in the small, low-ceilinged waiting area of the red brick terminal, a space with light blue chairs and mauve couches and a glossy sign — “It’s worth the trip!” — welcoming visitors to the place people just call Garden.

At the moment, the terminal was quiet except for the hiss of the Bunn automatic coffee maker over by the two rental-car counters. You could hear 18-wheelers hum along the two-lane highway outside, and the rattle and snap of the American and Kansas state flags blowing in the wind.

Soon, the passengers began filing in for the afternoon American Eagle to Dallas, which has steadily picked up business since it started last year.

Here were Judy and Earl Kleeman, retirees headed to Florida for a cruise to the Turks and Caicos Islands. “I feel strongly about the need to cut the national debt,” Judy Kleeman said, wondering whether she was willing to fly without the tower. “But I do feel strongly about education, and so many people need help. I don’t know much about air traffic control. I wonder if there was anyone there when I flew in last time.”

Here was Inocencio Feria, who was seeing off a family friend and said he would just drive to Amarillo, Tex., if American curtailed its flights. “It’s just four or five hours,” he said.

John Bogner, a beer wholesaler, was heading to Las Vegas for a convention. He was a family friend of Huelskamp’s, voted for him, and agreed completely that it was time to cut the budget. He was not sure cutting an air traffic control tower was the safest option, he said, “but I guess they have to start somewhere.”

CNN was on the TV, and a reporter was talking about the partisan gridlock triggering the budget cuts. Saeed Abdalla watched and compared U.S. politics to those of his home country of Somalia, where for more than 20 years clan rivalries and power grabs, among other factors, prevented any central government from functioning. He rubbed his forehead.

“American politics is complicated,” he said.

Robert Rouse, an ammonia refrigeration technician in town for the well-regarded industrial boiler class at Garden City Community College, wheeled in his luggage.

“I hate to see somebody lose a job,” he said.

Terryl Spiker and his wife, Ruth, sat down next to him. Besides being generally glad that the cutting was beginning, Spiker said that he was disgusted by both sides in Washington and that any businessman knows how to cut 10 percent of a budget without much pain. Although closing the tower was unnecessary, he said, he was not worried about flying without one. “From this little airport?” he said. “No.”

“Is that legal?” asked his wife, and soon the loudspeaker announced that security was open, just through the double doors.

Thirty people filed through. They scanned their boots, their quilted duffles and their computer cases and walked out onto the runway under what appeared to be an empty blue sky.

De Busk was in the tower, his voice squawking through a speaker in Powell’s office. She looked out through her windows at the silvery jet on the runway. A small propeller plane had just landed, and the jet soon took off.

By the time it returned eight hours later, President Obama had signed the papers officially ordering sequestration to begin. In Garden City, it was dark, the little airport lit up by blue, red and white lights. Here came the plane, and here came the passengers, including Justin Swift, a hotel proprietor who was coming home after a trip to Los Angeles, where he said he had gone through three security checks. “It’s so unnecessary — just fluff,” he said.

He wanted the budget reduced, but shutting down Garden City’s air traffic control tower did not strike him as the best way to do that. “It’s a stupid cut,” Swift said. “But we’ve got to cut. We’ve got to cut more.”

 
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