Update 3/22/13 … CHICAGO / Associated Press announced that the FAA put the final list of air traffic control tower closures at 149. The process of shutdown will start early in April. One key point: closures will not force the airports themselves to shut down, but all pilots will use unicom frequencies to communicate their position and intentions to other pilots in the vicinity. “We will work with the airports and the operators to ensure the procedures are in place to maintain the high level of safety at non-towered airports,” FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said in a statement.
In what could be a major impact on smaller regional airports such as Salinas Municipal in California, Lakeland Linder Regional in Florida (home of the Sun ‘n Fun show next month), and Wittman Regional in Wisconsin (home of Oshkosh Airventure), airlines have yet to say whether they will continue offering service to airports that lose tower staff. With the huge increase in air traffic at both those Oshkosh and Sun ‘n Fun, it’s likely that both venues will hire tower staff at least for those events. It’s impossible to imagine them without ATC! So far, Airlines for America said its member carriers have no plans to cancel or suspend flights as a result of the closures.
This is all part of the sequestration budget cuts. FAA’s mandate from Congress is to cut $637 million by September 30, 2013. The agency said it had no choice but to subject most of its 47,000 employees, including tower controllers, to periodic furloughs and to close air traffic facilities at small airports with lighter traffic. (According to another report all 47,000 FAA employees must take one day off every two weeks without pay, essentially a 10% pay cut. —DJ)
The airports targeted for tower shutdowns have fewer than 150,000 total flight operations per year. Of those, fewer than 10,000 are commercial flights by passenger airlines. Airport directors, pilots and others in the aviation sector have argued that stripping away an extra layer of safety during the most critical stages of flight will elevate risks and at the very least slow years of progress that made the U.S. aviation network the safest in the world.
For example, one of the facilities on the final closure list is Ogden-Hinckley Airport in Utah, where air traffic controllers keep planes safely separated from the F-16s operating out of nearby Hill Air Force Base and from flights using Salt Lake City International Airport.
The 149 air traffic facilities slated to begin closing on April 7 are out of a total of 516 control towers in the FAA’s national network. The targeted towers are all staffed by contract employees who are not FAA staffers. There were 65 other facilities staffed by FAA employees on the preliminary list of towers that could be closed. A final decision on their closure will require further review, the FAA said. The agency is also still considering eliminating overnight shifts at 72 additional air traffic facilities, including major airports like Chicago’s Midway International and General Mitchell Airport in Milwaukee. There was no word Friday on when that decision will come.
John Lampson, who took me through my Sport Pilot training, is one of the busiest CFIs at Hartford Brainard, CT, wrote me to say: “Thanks for addressing this. Earning my Private ticket at a non-towered airport, I was fortunate to learn from the start that non-towered airports are not “uncontrolled” fields … that is to say, there is plenty of order and regard for safety in that environment. Calling a fairly busy towered airport my home for the past decade, I can also absolutely see the value in having an operating control tower at certain airports. In my opinion, either environment can be operated within quite safely. One issue, however, that may arise from the abrupt closure of these control towers is the adjustment period, mixing ‘towered’ students who are used to taking directives from a controller, with non-towered pilots, who are quite comfortable relying on the ‘transmit in-the-blind,’ and using 45 degree-entry methods of arriving and departure. And that is without even mentioning higher-speed, heavier, corporate-type fixed-wing and rotorcraft traffic that frequent many towered airports on a regular basis, day and night.
Form a teaching standpoint, I’m not sure exactly how Private Pilot applicants will obtain the Class D experience they can now so easily access. It is my hope that for both the pilot community, as well as the controllers who do such a great job helping keep things running smoothly, calmly offering assistance when needed to the fledglings in the pattern, and helping to keep us all separated and safe on a daily basis, that this otherwise well-oiled machine is not dismantled and left to rust while government continues to create new problems and wastes more money.”
Meanwhile, back at the political ranch, the Senate and House have both passed budgets at long last, each of which is pretty much guaranteed not to get through the opposite house.
••• Now back to Jim Lawrence’s original article posted March 21, 2013. •••
You’ve probably heard by now that part of the fun of the so-called sequestration budget cuts across the U.S. economy includes the planned closure of as many as 238 FAA and contract control towers — nearly half the national figure of 515. Other reports cite 177, 189 and 212 airports. No matter who you believe, it’s a major change that will affect thousands of FAA and contract employees and could have a negative impact on air safety and traffic control, just for starters.
Local FBOs and pilots, aviation organizations like AOPA and EAA, GA business commuters to name just a few have raised a hue and cry from coast to coast.
FAA has been notifying airports that their towers are scheduled to close in the coming weeks. The list spreads the pain nationwide and includes names most of us are at least aware of, and many have flown into at one time or another — Mobile Downtown in Alabama, Santa Monica in Southern California (one of 9 in So Cal alone!), Front Range in Colorado, Orlando Executive in Florida, Hartford-Brainard in Massachusetts (the busy GA airport where I got my Sport Pilot ticket) and Cuyahoga County in Cleveland, Ohio. Only six states escaped the cut, with the largest, most-active GA states such as California (23), Florida (20) and Texas (19) among the hardest hit.
Here’s a complete list of ATC facilities that could be closed. Most airports that have their towers shut down will transition to uncontrolled fields. That should be interesting, to put it mildy, in places like Santa Monica, Collin County Regional in Dallas and Orlando Executive. Senator Jerry Moran of Kansas (think Wichita Tin) proposes a bill to restore funding to nearly 200 FAA and contract control towers. EAA applauds the effort but cautions against “undermining other FAA programs that would provide long-term benefits. Sen. Moran’s proposed amendment would move $50 million of undesignated funds from FAA research and capital projects to fund contract control towers throughout the nation. EAA’s VP of Government Relations, Doug Macnair, said, “With general aviation bearing more than 90 percent of the FAA’s mandated budget cuts under sequestration, it’s gratifying to see Congress engaging in a discussion about maintaining safety through important GA services that have been proven cost-effective. While the contract tower program is very important to busy GA airports, we must be mindful that diverting R&D funds to support contract towers is not without significant consequences.”
Another downside, says EAA, would be the loss of the Piston Aviation Fuel Initiative, a program was designed by industry and the FAA to evaluate viable unleaded replacement options for 100LL avgas. Cuts would affect most GA operators, in an atmosphere of the Environmental Protection Agency’s attempts to kill leaded aviation fuel altogether.
LSA aircraft will not be impacted by such a shelving, at least not models that use Rotax or other powerplants that run just fine on mogas (auto fuel), which is nearly the entire fleet. Online aviation readers across the country are weighing in. Here’s a sample from various aviation websites: Many of these towers should have closed years ago. GA has declined while the number of towers has increased. Uncontrolled fields work very well when the traffic is low.Alas, “everyone” DOESN’T agree that the federal government spends too much money. To wit: Until we agree on what we want the government to do, we don’t know if it’s spending “too much” or not…What’s clear is that we’re not paying for what we’re currently asking the government to do, so something definitely needs to change to get that into rough balance.Flying in and out of a non-towered airport is easy. Folks get nervous when their routine is disturbed or their workload changes.I like the folks in our local control tower, but from a financial and traffic count point of view, I have to say that the local tower makes no sense. Must be really boring to sit there and see nothing going on hour after hour.Most of the airports scheduled to lose their towers should have them closed. Those towers are …relics of past glory days or as political gifts to support a local politician’s delusion of grandeur.In looking through the list, there are airports on there I could never figure why they had a control tower to begin with!I regularly fly into a good number of the airports on the list, especially in Florida. Most every time I wonder why they have a tower, they are just not that busy!Pew just did a study asking people about 19 different potential areas for cuts – and the public answer was essentially none of them. In the abstract, people say “spend less”, but in specific terms, the answer changes. We need to get over that and make some hard decisions.Oh no!!! Not Roswell!!! Little green men might die!!! Rather than picking 100, out of that list of 200 towers, why don’t we just close all 200 of ‘em?This reminds me of electricity and its supply. People oppose all aspects of its expansion – no new generation plants, no new transmission lines etc. But demand is increasing! At some point everything will collapse then what does everyone do? Blame the government of course.The meat-axe is a poor way to do this…(“Tea-Partiers”) have finally shut off the Federal government spigot and cost jobs and safety. You will soon learn how vital the government really is, and it may cost a few pilots’ lives, and some on the ground, to re-learn that aviation safety is a TEAM effort, not just a “pilot” thing.Fundamentally this is about maintaining the current tax structure enacted under President Bush while President Obama wants to go back to a tax structure that looks an awful lot like the tax policy of the Clinton years…and which produced better results? Spending cuts Republicans are proposing are very much like the current UK austerity program. Look at those results – the deeper the austerity, they deeper the deficit.
As you can see, opinions range all over the map. My take: politics aside, intelligent leadership at all levels must include a willingness to compromise for the good of all. That has traditionally been the only rising thermal that lifts all aircraft.