Air Force plans to pull controllers at Alexandria airport

Story Courtesy of The Town Talk
Written by: Billy Gunn

Local airport officials and others are fighting Air Force plans that would disband the Louisiana Air National Guard squadron of air traffic controllers working at Alexandria International Airport and transfer the 110-airman unit to other U.S. flight duties by Oct. 1.

England Airpark Director Jon Grafton said Monday the Air Force made the "surprise announcement" to air park officials and others in March.

"We have been working with a number of parties internally and in a quiet way to reverse the decision," said Grafton, who oversees the air park in Rapides Parish.

That tact wasn't working, Grafton said.

"We've been advised that we need to let the public know what's happening," he said.

Grafton said his office would release news about the transfers each day this week.

He also said the airport would not go without air traffic controllers.

"If we're not successful in reversing this decision, after Oct. 1 what the England Airpark would have to do is look at how to man the (control) tower," Grafton said.

The Air Force decision was made without consulting Louisiana U.S. Sens. Mary Landrieu and David Vitter, U.S. Rep. Rodney Alexander or the Louisiana Air National Guard, and will cause Central Louisiana to suffer a direct $3 million economic loss each year, Grafton said.

Air Force plans call for taking members of the Louisiana Air National Guard 259th Air Traffic Control Squadron, which operates the control tower at Alexandria International, and deploying them to "form Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (drone) units in other states," according to an airpark news release.

Grafton said the senators and Alexander, along with Louisiana National Guard Brig. Gen. Glenn H. Curtis, are lobbying against the plans.

Alexander said Monday it was "unfair" of the Air Force to "overreach" and take all 110 soldiers at the airpark. "We're seeing what we can do" to stop the transfers or soften the economic hit to the region, he said.

Johnny Taylor is a retired Air Force air traffic controller who trains guardsmen at AEX as a civilian employee of the Department of Defense. He said guardsmen training at AEX do not want to transfer out.

He also said the 110-soldier squadron has a number of maintenance personnel who work on radars, radios and other equipment, and that the majority of the unit comes in on weekends to train.

Last year, the 259th public affairs office at Camp Beauregard said its Air Traffic Control Squadron at AEX had taken control of air space around Alexandria from Fort Polk, which took over flights when England Air Force Base closed in 1992.

It's unclear who would take over control if the Air Force implements the changes. It's clear airpark officials are resisting.

"On a daily basis, the 259th (air traffic control) supports the safe operation of civilian and military aircraft at AEX," said Scott Gammel, AEX manager. "AEX will be working with the aviation community to support our congressional delegation to reverse this decision."

Airpark officials are asking the public to contact: Sen. Landrieu at (202) 224-5824, Sen. Vitter at (202) 224-4623 and Rep. Alexander at (202) 225-8490.