FAA Tower Closures

Posted by in Aviation, Politics, Safety

A few days ago, the Federal Aviation Administration published a list of air traffic control towers which are slated for closure now that the sequestration-related budget cuts have kicked in. Looking at the list of Southern California facilities, one sees quite a few busy airports which sit under multiple layers of airspace.

At times like these, it’s important to take a deep breath, remember that the vast majority of airports are already non-towered, and as always, cast a skeptical eye on the antics of those in Washington.

I’ve been monitoring the hue and cry from aviation magazines, organizations, and bloggers and have been impressed by how many have refused to adopt a hysterical “the sky is falling!” attitude. It’s also worth noting that the cut extend beyond tower staffing. For example, the FAA does not intend to repair all navaids when they fail, only those that are part of their minimal network plan.

My take? The degradation of ATC services isn’t the end of the world. I view it as somewhat akin to “partial panel”: not an ideal situation, but definitely flyable.

We do need to do some educating, though. The general public must understand that we can fly at non-towered airports. Few outside of the insular aviation community are aware that only a few hundred of the nearly 5,000 paved airports in the United States have ever had a control tower. Taxi, takeoff and landing without air traffic control assistance is the rule, not the exception. I can’t tell you how many non-flying friends are floored by that revelation. “No tower?! How will we know what to do?!”

Of course, there’s a big difference between flying around, say, Santa Monica, California and… well, just about everywhere else. After reviewing the expected closures, my eye was caught not by what was on the list, but rather what wasn’t. There are quite a few low-traffic, rural towers that are somehow escaping the axe.

Example: last month I flew coast-to-coast in a DA-40 DiamondStar and we stopped at seven towered airports, the majority of which are in far less densely populated areas that Los Angeles and only one of which has anywhere near the traffic of the SoCal area airports whose towers are slated for closure.

I used the FAA’s Air Traffic Activity System (ATADS) to compile a list of all the towers in the United States for which data was available and requested the number of tower ops (takeoffs, landings, and transient operations) for the last twelve months. They were then sorted by number of operations. See the full list (.xlsx format).

On my transcon last month, we stopped at:

*12-months ending March 31, 2012, data from Airnav.com

Based on the closure list and comments from FAA officials, it seems that everything with less than about 150,000 operations per year is on the table. That means only White Plains would survive. But when I look for these identifiers, I only see two — Rosewell and Lewisburg — which are actually scheduled for closure.

Compare the above list to the number of operations taking place at Los Angeles area airports which are going to be shut down:

So what’s going on here? Why is Camarillo, with 146,000 operations per year, being closed while Greenwood, with less than 42,000 ops annually, remains open? It seems airports with U.S. Customs service are being spared. Morristown and Knoxville are airports-of-entry, so they keep their tower. Greenwood’s tower is owned and operated by the city, so the FAA doesn’t save anything by closing it. As far as Henderson is concerned, I cannot see any reason that it escaped the axe beyond it’s status as a reliever for McCarren Int’l Airport. But if reliever towers were to be left open, surely Santa Monica and Hawthorne would be safe. Those airports are just a couple of miles north and south, respectively, of LAX.

Speaking of Santa Monica, a controller there provided some specifics to illustrate why fields like SMO would not necessarily be able to operate as other non-towered airports do:

Safety would be compromised, if by nothing else, the mix of aircraft (A/C) that use the airport. Combined with frequency congestion, this could put fast moving A/C in conflict with slower, less experienced A/C with little time to respond.

That does not even address the difficulty that would be experienced trying to get in or out of SMO on an IFR flight plan, due to the fact we are not procedurally separated from LAX. Even our arrivals are not separated from LAX arrivals due to the circling approach. When the tower is open, we can instruct A/C unable to land straight in what to do; without a tower, you either cancel IFR by BEVEY, or get taken off the approach. If they let you circle, you are in conflict with the LAX arrivals and they would have to build a 20 mile or greater gap in their arrivals, and time it perfectly with your circle.

Airspace?  Piece of cake.  Especially when you get rid of all the towers!

Airspace? Piece of cake. Especially when you get rid of all the towers!

Obviously I’m not privy to the inter workings of the FAA, but the list of L.A.-area towers being cut seems excessive. These towers not only see a lot of traffic but serve other purposes, such as special flight routes across the Class B airspace, handling continual Medfly overflights, complex IFR traffic coordination with LAX arrivals and departures, and dense layers of helicopter, fixed-wing GA, and corporate & airline flights.

Rather than just close a tower because is has an arbitrary number of operations per year, wouldn’t it make more sense to look at the type of activity, the airspace being controlled by that tower, and so on? Fullerton, for example, is a Class D tower with Charlie airspace nearby and Bravo above. That’s got to be more complicated than a Delta tower in the middle of nowhere. You’ll see this reflected in the discrepancy between tower ops and airport ops. The larger the difference, the more likely it is that the facility is handling a significant transient aircraft load. From a safety perspective, that’s a big red flag. The tower is handling a lot of traffic which did not takeoff or land from that airport. Translation: busy airspace, and a potentially legitimate need for that control tower.

Sadly, the current administration strategy lends credence to those who say the directive from the top is to create as much pain as possible. It makes sense from a political standpoint as well. They want more money and fear what will happen if the sky doesn’t fall over this minor cut. It’s human nature and not government-specific.

Think of any office department you’ve been a part of. The end of the fiscal year is typically accompanied by a spending spree to eliminate any leftover money. And why? Because if you return a surplus to the general fund, it might be assumed that your department can get by with less.

The FAA’s finances are worth looking at while we’re on the topic. Their budget for 2013 was $7 billion and the sequestration cut is $600 million, or about 8%. In real dollars, the 2013 sequestered budget of $6.4 billion is still $500 million higher than their 2008 spending allotment. Why can’t they survive on that, especially considering traffic levels have fallen from their 2008 highs?

If the FAA’s primary concern truly is flight safety, then it seems to me there are many alternatives to tower closures of this kind. For one, start by slowing or halting NexGen development. A year ago, Congress approved $63.4 billion for the program. That’s enough to keep those towers open for the next 100 years.

Restrict administrative expenses like travel costs. Use videoconferencing. The agency budgets $2.7 billion just for supplies and travel expenses for its 48,000 employees. That’s $56,250 per person. I know they’re in the transportation business, but isn’t that a bit much?

Reduce controller salaries at the high end. It stinks to have a $140,000/year salary reduced, but doctors, lawyers, and other highly-educated member of our workforce are taking their lumps these days, too.

How about reducing staffing hours at those towers? Most are closed at night anyway. Shut them down an hour earlier and/or open them later during the week. The Delta towers are most needed on the weekend.

How about eliminating the 3rd class medical? Downsizing the Aeromedical branch and changing policy to presume medical certification is acceptable until they get around to reviewing a deferred application? Statistics show that pilots who fly under Sport Pilot rules using medical self-certification are no more prone to incapacitation in flight than those with traditional AME-based certificates.

Should an 8% budget cut close this many towers in a region with good weather year-round, many airports in close proximity, lots of airline and corporate jet activity, and some of the most densely packed airspace in the country? I don’t think so. They can do better than this.

And if they don’t? We’ll keep on flying anyway.