City, County Sparring Over Changes to Castle Airspace

Merced Sun Star
By Leslie Albrecht

In the latest chapter in the clash between Merced County’s two largest airports, the Merced City Council Monday night unanimously approved a resolution asking the federal government to draw a new airspace boundary around Castle Airport. City officials say Castle’s new airspace boundary — which went into effect last Tuesday when Castle’s refurbished air traffic control tower was reactivated — creates a safety hazard and delays passenger flights taking off from Merced Municipal Airport. The county says the new airspace enhances safety and does not conflict with the operation of Merced’s airport. “The city has not opposed Castle having an active tower; the city has not opposed Castle having controlled airspace,” said Assistant City Manager Bill Cahill at Monday’s meeting. “We have only wanted to change the shape of the airspace to allow for the effective operation of both airports.”

While both city and county officials contend that the disagreement over the new airspace is about safety, it’s also true that Castle’s new tower and controlled airspace brings the airport one step closer to attracting commercial carriers, Castle Airport Manager Scott Malta said.

That could pose a threat to Merced Municipal’s status as the county’s sole provider of commercial passenger air service.

Both the city and county say the two airports can co-exist, but the federal subsidy that funds Merced’s passenger air service is almost always awarded to an airline that takes off exclusively from one airport, said Department of Transportation spokesman Bill Mosley.

“There’s no prohibition against two different airports sharing the (subsidy), although that’s rarely if ever done,” he said.

In August 2006, Castle surprised city officials when it made its first formal attempt to lure passenger air carriers to its runways by asking the Department of Transportation to consider Castle as a take-off point for passenger flights.

No airlines took Castle up on its offer, and Merced Municipal remains the exclusive provider of passenger air service in the county.

Now city officials say Castle’s new airspace creates “dangerous conditions” for pilots taking off from both airports, according to a statement the city released Friday.

Castle hasn’t had controlled airspace since the Air Force base closed in 1995. Castle’s new airspace, 11.5 miles in diameter, hits up against Merced’s airspace and overlaps Merced’s territory for about one mile over Highway 99, Merced Municipal Airport Manager Lloyd Partin said.

With the new airspace activated, Partin said pilots taking off from Merced’s runway have only about 30 seconds before they must make radio contact with Castle’s tower.

For private pilots in older planes with outdated radio equipment, that can be difficult, said Partin. If pilots don’t establish two-way communication with the Castle tower in time, they break FAA regulations, which can lead to losing a pilot’s license, he said.

Stan Thurston, co-owner of Gemini Flight Support at Castle, said during the council meeting that forcing planes to communicate with Castle’s tower will lead to safer flying. Thurston is a former Merced City Council member.

Partin also said Castle’s tower controls five miles of airspace with no radar equipment, meaning the tower must visually track aircraft.

On days when visibility is at three miles, for example, Castle’s tower is controlling airspace it can’t fully see, said Partin.

But county spokesman Mark Hendrickson said Castle’s new tower and airspace would only improve safety in Merced’s skies.

He said that before last Tuesday, the county’s air traffic situation was like having a busy intersection with no lights or police officer directing traffic. Now, Castle’s tower can alert planes that could otherwise possibly run into each other, Hendrickson said.

In addition to the safety concerns the city raised, Cahill said Merced was not informed about Castle’s plan to create a new airspace boundary and not invited to comment when the Federal Aviation Administration drew the new boundary.

The resolution the council approved Monday night asks the FAA to reopen the boundary-drawing process so the city can submit plans for an alternative boundary, Cahill said.

Hendrickson said the city was kept informed of Castle’s plan for a new boundary because a notice was published in the Federal Register. The Federal Register is a daily digest of new government rules that can sometimes run to thousands of pages, said Cahill, so it’s no surprise the city missed the announcement.

Hendrickson also said that city officials have known since 1995 that the county intended to “reutilize Castle to its fullest extent.”

He said activating Castle’s tower and airspace are just two of a series of steps the county will take to achieve its goals of providing jobs and economic opportunity at the former Air Force base.

Castle is also hoping to break ground soon on a new passenger air terminal.

Right now Merced Municipal is the only airport in the county officially certified by the FAA to handle passenger air service. But with the new tower in place, Castle has met all the requirements for passenger certification, said FAA spokesman Ian Gregor.

The federal subsidy that funds Merced’s passenger air service is up for grabs in 2008, but Partin said he’s not worried about airlines transferring their passenger service to Castle, because Merced Municipal has “far superior navigational aids.”

As for Merced’s request that the FAA change Castle’s airspace, Gregor said he could not comment on the request until the agency has a chance to analyze it.

But he said city officials have been invited to participate in an “operational evaluation” of Castle’s new airspace.

“We’ve invited them to participate in an evaluation of the airspace and how it’s working out,” Gregor said. “We’re confident that the evaluation will show that we made the right decision in the first place.”

For more information go to the Merced Sun Star web site.

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