Closing Air Traffic Control Towers As A Result of the Sequester Just the Latest Chapter of Ongoing Dilemma About Little Used Air Traffic Towers

On February 22, 2013, Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood and Federal Aviation Administration Administrator Michael Huerta issued a two-page letter stating that in preparation for the budget sequestration the FAA “is making plans to reduce its expenditures by approximately $600 million for the remainder of FY 2013.”  Although the letter did not commit the FAA or USDOT to make any changes, the letter did state that it was considering the following changes “that will have an impact on FY 2013 operations:

1.            Furlough the vast majority of the FAA’s 47,000 employees (including all management and non-management employees working within the Air Traffic Organization) for approximately one day per pay period until the end of the fiscal year in September, with a maximum of two days per pay period.

2.            Eliminate midnight shifts in over 60 towers across the country.

3.            Close 100 air traffic control towers at airports with fewer than 150,000 flight operations or 10,000 commercial operations per year.

4.            Reduce preventative maintenance and equipment provisioning and support for all NAS equipment.

(UPDATE March, 22, 2013:  See FAA Issues List of Towers to Close Due To Sequester for the list of Air Traffic Control Towers that the FAA has slated to close).

Whether this was meant to be a “political gambit” or is a bona fide plan for dealing with the impact of the sequester, it got the attention of the media and the aviation pundits.  The aviation forums in LinkedIn buzzed over the weekend over an article published in The Guardian, while a whole host of articles appeared in local papers about the various closures and the possible impact it would have on the local economy.   Secretary LaHood went on the Sunday talk shows urging Congress to compromise on the sequester and the “across the board budget cuts” so that this plan can be avoided.

Reaction to the Transportation budget cuts has been swift and negative.  Politco has reported:

Senate Commerce Chairman Jay Rockefeller called the sequester cuts “reckless” and said that “everyone who travels for business or pleasure will be adversely affected.” NATCA President Paul Rinaldi cautioned that the cuts “may not be reversed,” adding that “closing air traffic control towers means the system will be even more compromised than anticipated.” Regional Airline Association President Roger Cohen said the “government is playing an irresponsible game of chicken – with no winners – and the traveling and shipping public will be the losers.” ACI-NA President Greg Principato thinks “decisions on cutting air traffic control services should be made based on most efficiently serving the needs and safety of the traveling public and in consultation with airports, airlines as well as affected communities.” A4A’s Jean Medina said that “no one wants to see the sequester happen,” and AOPA President and CEO Craig Fuller said he’s “deeply concerned” that the cuts “will compromise aviation safety and severely damage the efficiency of general aviation flight operations nationally.”

But how much of a “compromise of safety” will it actually be?  Bloomberg news reported last year that 54 of the 72 towers slated for overnight closures already met FAA guidelines for closing during those periods because of low traffic, according to agency data compiled by Bloomberg. The FAA has been thwarted in previous attempts to close towers and radar rooms at little-used airports by pressure from members of Congress.  A good example if Ann Arbor Municipal Airport.  Ann Arbor Municipal Airport had, according to AirNav.com approximately 58,765 operations for the period ending December 31, 2011.  In FY 2011, the FAA paid $1,783,838 and in Fiscal Year 2012 (Oct. 2011 – Sept. 2012) the FAA paid $1,860,791 to operate the Air Traffic Control Tower.  Thus, it cost approximately, $31/operation to operate the control tower, which includes the operations that occurred after the control tower closed for the night.  Aside from the control tower, the entire budget for operation of Ann Arbor Municipal Airport was $817,900 – approximately $1,000,000 less than the cost just to operate the tower.

The fear in the aviation community is that if these cuts are instituted, then they will not be reversed and many smaller airports will face financial difficulties or closure in the years to come.  This comes at a time when there appears to be an ongoing debate about the FAA’s Air Traffic Control mission.  Should it be privatized?  Should it be split off from FAA’s regulatory duties into a separate agency?  As reported in Has The Time Come to Privatize Air Traffic Control? The USDOT Inspector General found that the FAA’s Contract Tower program offered little difference in the safety or quality of services provided by similar FAA and contract towers.”  The Inspector General also found that the “contract towers provided air traffic services to low-activity airports at lower costs than the Agency could otherwise provide.”  Thus, whether the tower is privatized or contract, the true cost of the tower would be passed onto the consumer, rather than shouldered by the federal government.  This is certainly what the Republican majority on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee wanted last summer.  It may be that they will get what they want sooner than they thought.

UPDATE February 26, 2013:

Politico is reporting that Rep. Bill Shuster, Chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure and Sen. John John Thune, Ranking Member of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, sent a letter yesterday to Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood indicating their desire to get their hands on the FAA’s spend plan, both with and without the sequestration.  Rep. Shuster and Sen. Thune claim that this information should have been produced by the agency back in October, 2012.

UPDATE February 27, 2013:

For more information about the U.S. House Aviation Subcommittee Hearing that, although it was ostensibly held to update the House on progress with the FAA Reauthorization and Reform Act, devolved into a hearing about the FAA’s sequester cuts, see U.S. House’s Hearing On FAA Reform Act Turns Into Hearing On Sequester and Closing ATC Towers

UPDATE March 15, 2013:

From sources, it now appears that the FAA has sent letters to the airports that have towers slated for closure stating that the FAA would announce its final selection of airport slated for “elimination of funding for the tower operations” on Friday, March, 22, 2013, instead of Monday, March 18, 2013.

J. David Grizzle, Chief Operating Officer of the Federal Aviation Administration’s Air Traffic Organization, appears to have issued this release on Friday, March 15, 2013 to the affected airports:

As you are aware, the FAA has offered to airport sponsors for 189 airports within the FAA’s contract tower program the opportunity to explain why the elimination of funding for the tower operations at their airports would adversely affect the national interest.

The FAA has received a very large number of responses. In order to review comprehensively the submission on behalf of each airport, the FAA will delay the date of its final decision and announcement of which airport tower operations it intends to cease to fund.

The FAA will make that announcement on March 22, 2013.

Examples of local articles:

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7 Responses to Closing Air Traffic Control Towers As A Result of the Sequester Just the Latest Chapter of Ongoing Dilemma About Little Used Air Traffic Towers

  1. boguebrandon says:

    I am currently an aviation major at Indiana State University and i am confused by why they are closing flight towers down. From everything that I have heard the aviation world is only going to grow in the future so why shut down a vital part of the industry? I understand budgets and that the government is trying to rise above our debt but taking safety out of an equation does not seem like the answer to me! I have heard of NextGen and understand it but we do not have it implemented into enough airports to shut down towers right away.

    • Steven M. Taber says:

      The towers at the airports under consideration for closure (at least through the end of FY 2013 (Sept 30, 2013)) are not as productive or useful as they might be. As pointed out in the my blog post, many of the towers under consideration for losing their overnight shift already meet the FAA’s criteria for closure, but have not been closed because of the outcry from the local U.S. Representative and local aviation groups. This part of the reason why the FAA was not reauthorized for several years – it wanted to scale back or eliminate programs like Essential Air Service. The question is whether these towers that are to closed or closed at night could be moved to the contract tower program and operated more efficiently. When the tower at an airport is the largest, by a three to one margin, expense, something needs to be done to rectify the accounting. The question is not safety – while it is certainly safer to have a manned tower at the airport – the question in money. To answer your question more directly – the FAA has deemed these towers NOT to be a vital part of the industry, nor does the FAA believe that aviation safety will be compromised if they are closed because these airports are not used enough to warrant the kind of tower coverage they currently receive.

  2. David says:

    I totally think there are many towers that could be closed with little to no impact on safety. The problem I have with the standards they are setting is they are a little to black and white in this area. I would venture to guess that if you looked at all of these airports you could find similar cost savings by simply changing the hours the tower is available. Obviously it would take more work and effort, something politicians aren’t big fans of, but it would result in a much more safe change in the situation.

    We can all agree that towers make airspace safer, but do we really need controllers at airports that are only getting about 6-7 flights an hour? Maybe we do. Does that airport house a flight school for a university or similar institution? Are there peak hours where operations are busy enough to warrant the manning, and other times, particularly overnight, where you are paying someone to play on their phone? Like I said I think a little effort could result in a similarly safe situation while still creating the necessary cuts.

    In a lot of ways reducing maintenance on NAS equipment is scarier to me. Much of that equipment is ancient, and allowing it to fall into disarray could make the whole situation even worse. You take controllers out of the situation, while at the same time allowing navaids to degrade, and you magnify the problem even more.

    • Steven M. Taber says:

      The problem with closing towers, even for a short time, is that it takes money away from the airport and the local economy. The U.S. Senator and U.S. Rep. for the district that contains the airport does not want to see that federal money go some place else, even if that money can best be used some place else.

      I agree that reducing maintenance on NAS equipment is scary, particularly when so much of it is antiquated and in need of constant maintenance. My guess is that the FAA is looking at the sequester as a springboard to push implementation of NextGen a quicker pace. My guess is that if maintenance is reduced and the equipment breaks down, it will not be replaced by the same old equipment, but new NextGen equipment for which the FAA has a budget.

      Tomorrow there is a hearing in front of the U.S. House Aviation Subcommittee on the implementation of the FAA Reauthorization Act. The only listed witness is FAA Administrator Huerta. It should be interesting if he has anything to say about the sequester and closing towers in addition to why the NextGen roll-out is taking “so long.”

  3. regionl airport pilot says:

    .Does anyone remember Quincy Illinois November 19, 1996. Apparently not. Sooner than later, an accidnt will occur at one of these airports that had its air traffic control tower closed and people will say the accident could have been avoided if only the air traffic control had not been closed.

  4. Pingback: U.S. House’s Hearing On FAA Reform Act Turns Into Hearing On Sequester and Closing ATC Towers | Aviation and Airport Development News

  5. Pingback: FAA Issues List Of Towers to Close Due to Sequester | Aviation and Airport Development News

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