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Gannett: Guard Air Traffic Controllers Could remain at Alexandria International

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A combination of efforts here and in Washington has stopped or at least delayed the Air Force's breakup of the Louisiana Air National Guard's 259th Air Traffic Control Squadron, whose 110 members are stationed at Alexandria International Airport.

"The 259th has got new life," said Jon Grafton, executive director of England Airpark. In March, the Air Force told Louisiana's congressional delegation and the England Authority, which oversees England Airpark where the airport -- known as AEX -- is located, that the 259th would be disbanded and its members dispersed to Air Force drone programs elsewhere. The Air Force said the moves were cost-cutting measures.

Louisiana officials have been critical of the way the Air Force made the decisions. "Many of its proposed cuts and transfers were done without consulting impacted communities and lawmakers," U.S. Rep. Rodney Alexander said. "Furthermore, despite countless inquiries from elected officials, our military leadership has been unable to provide substantiated justification for their decisions."

Alexander and others in Louisiana's Washington delegation, along with other members of Congress, passed defense spending legislation in the House and Senate that delayed scattering 259th squadron members among other National Guard posts.

In June, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta wrote a letter to Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, a Democrat from Hawaii who heads the Senate Appropriations Committee, that the Air Force was suspending transfer plans.

That included Air Force plans to retire A-10 fighter jets from the 47th Fighter Squadron at Barksdale Air Force Base near Shreveport. Panetta's letter followed two spending bills in the Senate and two in the House." That means all four pieces of legislation are now in the same posture prohibiting the cuts," Grafton said.

Grafton said Louisiana was unified in its opposition to shutting the 259th down: the Legislature went on record opposing it; state highways chief Sheri LeBas urged Congress to consider the squadron's role in Louisiana; and hundreds of people contacted the state's congressional delegation to stop it. England Airpark set up a petition on its website and enlisted local mayors to speak out.

"All of that worked together," Grafton said. "Otherwise, our small unit here in Central Louisiana could very well have been overlooked."

Sen. Mary Landrieu said in a news release that she worked with Inouye to fund the 259th and the A-10 squadron at Barksdale "to continue their critical mission for the next year."

Airmen stationed with the 259th have since 1997 overseen air traffic control operations at AEX for commercial, military and other government aircraft.


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