Close to home: The impact of tower closures

If you are a pilot, nothing gets your attention faster than when the FAA proposes closing local control towers.

As part of FAA budget cuts due to the sequester, agency officials notified 173 contract air traffic control towers across the country that they will be shut down on April 7. Airport officials have until March 18 to appeal the decision.

Also in the works is an attempt by Senator Jerry Moran (R-Kansas) to add an amendment to the Senate’s Continuing Resolution to direct $50 million to the FAA’s operations account to continue the Federal Contract Tower Program.

But if the appeals process or the amendment fails, towers at GA airports around the nation will close, affecting all of GA.

I live in western Washington state. The three GA towers on the chopping block closest to me are Tacoma Narrows Airport (TIW), Olympia Regional Airport (OLM), and Renton Municipal Airport (RNT).

Currently I do most of my teaching out of uncontrolled Pierce County/Thun Field (PLU), which is 15 nm from TIW as the Cessna Skyhawk flies.

TIW falls under the jurisdiction of Pierce County Public Works department. I have logged hundreds of hours as both a student and as an instructor pilot going in and out of TIW and transitioning the airspace. TIW is located under the shelf of Class Bravo that covers Sea-Tac International (SEA) and lies along side the busy Class D that covers Joint Base Lewis-McChord (TCM) and Graye Army Airfield (GRF).

According to Deb Wallace, Pierce County Public Works and Utilities airport and ferry administrator, the proximity of TIW to the military bases makes it a bad candidate for tower closure.

“We have three military flight patterns adjacent to the airspace at Tacoma Narrows,” Wallace said. “That makes Tacoma a complicated area to fly in, so having our control tower in operation during the day time is important.”

In 2012, TIW saw 50,000 operations comprised of corporate, military, media and flight training traffic. The airport has a fuel concession and several small businesses. Wallace is quick to note that if the tower closes, the airport will still remain in operation, but will become a non-towered airport.

According to airport officials, a control tower is attractive to many pilots who look at the tower as an added level of safety and security. Without the tower, pilots and aircraft owners may take their business — and the revenue it generates — elsewhere.

The potential negative economic impact of control tower closures on communities does not impress the FAA, said Wallace.

“The FAA has stated that they will only consider national interests when evaluating an airport,” she explained. “They do not see economic revenue loss as part of the national interest, but we do. Since the economic downturn, general aviation has declined approximately 50%. This is not the time to do something like this.”

The financial aspect of the tower closure is very real to me because I believe it will raise the cost of obtaining a private pilot’s license for my students. The Practical Test Standard for Private Pilots requires the applicant be familiar with towered airport operations. This process involves a discussion and a visit to the closest towered airport. Usually I take them to TIW for this lesson.

Crunching the numbers

Rental of the Cessna 172 is $135 per hour wet. If the student purchases a block of 10 hours, the price drops to $122 per hour. The instructor is $58 per hour. Most out-and-back lessons are done in two-hour blocks. I plan for .3 to .5 of pre-flight instruction, followed by the flight, which is usually 1 to 1.2 hours depending on the student’s saturation level, and then .3 to .5 for a debrief. That puts the cost of the lesson at about $262.40.

According to FAR Part 61.109, the private pilot applicant must have logged a total of 13 takeoffs and landings at a towered airport before being eligible for the checkride.

The flight to Tacoma Narrows and back takes approximately 15 minutes. Since the towers at both Olympia and Renton, which are the next two closest GA airports, are also slated for shut down, potentially the only option my students will have is King County International Airport/Boeing Field (BFI), located 26 nm to the north.

That’s an additional 30 to 40 minutes of airplane and instructor time the student will have to pay for just for the en route portion of the flight.

BFI is not an easy airport to transition to if you normally fly at a non-controlled airport. It is one of the busiest airports in the United States. Freighters, military, corporate jets, Boeing test airplanes, scheduled commercial carriers and a considerable amount of general aviation traffic flies in and out of the airport.

I spent four years at BFI as an instructor pilot and learned to work with — and in some cases around — the heavy traffic. Often first solos were done at a nearby non-towered airport, and it was understood that Thursday evening was “freight on parade night” so you best not let your inexperienced students out unsupervised. Often we waited 20 minutes or more for our turn to takeoff on busy afternoons.

Taking a low-time student pilot into BFI for their first towered experience is a bit like taking someone on the freeway to teach them how to drive. For my clients who begin their flight training at non-towered fields I save the trip to BFI for the end of the private syllabus. I tell my students if they can get in and out of BFI safely without me saying a single word, they are ready for their checkrides.

Will the sequestration mean a permanent closure of the towers? That remains to be seen. Could Boeing Field be next on the chopping block? It is possible.

Boeing Field Airport Director Robert I. Burke recently issued this statement on the proposed tower cuts: “In our discussions with FAA any reductions in service for KBFI will not occur before Sept. 30, 2013. Our understanding is that an analysis is ongoing and if there are cuts for us it will be during low activity periods. Nothing immediate.”

Is your airport on the list?

Go to SaveContractTowersNow.com and click on Affected Towers and Communities to download a PDF that lists all the airports slated for closure. The website also has information on how to contact your elected representatives and tips on what to say to get the message across that closing the towers is a bad idea.

Comments

  1. henrietta Christensen says

    Crunching the numbers… since when does a student need 13 t-o & ldgs at a towered airport?

    • Otto Keesling says

      Henriatta:

      You are right on point. Where is all the out cry? Are people affraid to speak out. The FAA has got lock jaw by reason I am sure. We Mr. Obama you are hurting the wrong people. We don’t live on entitlements.

  2. AK John says

    I’m surprised to see that Renton is on the list. They have a congested area and 737’s flying out of there. Even if the SEA TRACON is handling the airspace, how are they going to provide separation on the ground control issue?

  3. Jhjardine says

    Jscott, I second your comment. Well said.

    The ga community is certainly victim to the Administration’s effort to selectively impose sequestration in a way that enables them to point their finger across the aisle and blame the GOP as the proponent of spending cuts, in general. The Administration has targeted sequestration at the most ridiculous and visible cuts (I.e White House tours) and downright unfair and possibly dangerous cuts (controll tower closers) in an effort to exaggerate the effect of a relatively small cut in spending by imposing cuter on very visible government entities. Quite frankly, in my opinion, this tactic is disgusting. The more people that are aware of this game, the better.

    This is an unfortunate case of GA getting caught in the political crossfire and more specifically, the current administration’s morally questionable attempt to avoid any cuts in the future.

    P.s. White House staff have not taken any pay cuts. Plus, the Administration’s own report put out by the Congressional Budget Office reports that the fed propagates $100s of millions in waste and fraud. No effort has been made by the Administration to address this fraud; and instead, when forced to cut $88 million over two years, they pitch a fit and direct cuts toward highly visible sectors of the federal government. What a sham.

    As pilots, we will just have to sharpen our non-towered pattern skills. ….Not the end of the world.

  4. Jscott says

    The sky is not falling. The government may be inept and trying to make tiny cuts in the most publicly painful way possible, but the sky is not falling.

    So let me see if I can understand this. The taxpayers should pay to keep a tower open to save your students roughly 3 1/3 hours of instructor time over the course of their training in order to check the box under landings with a control tower? At what cost? Seems more like an inconvenience than a justification for retaining a tower. Sorry to rag on you here, but this is a prime example of what is wrong here. We all want services for convenience, but we all want someone else to pay for them.

    I do really feel bad about the contract tower operators that may lose their jobs. And Aviation is taking an proportionality large hit thanks to our anti-aviation president. It’s yet another symptom of our really sick government that nobody is willing to fix. But, are all of the towers absolutely necessary? IMHO, many of them exist because of an opportunity for the FAA to expand their fiefdom with little actual need other than to get a few pilots that lack self discipline to play nice in the pattern on the weekends. That’s certainly not true in every case, but in many it is. They do offer services that many of us enjoy, but could also do without.

    The problem here is that the FAA didn’t take a look at the towers and actually assess current needs and safety impacts. They just decided to lop off the contractors because that was easy to do. That attitude indeed is yet another symptom of the bureaucrats bumbling we have in government. No assessment to safety. Just do what’s easy. But the problem they have is that everyone cries in unison that their tower is absolutely necessary for safety, so why should the bureaucrats step up and actually make the difficult decisions? No matter what they do, it’s going to be wrong.

    Bottom line here is that your government is playing chicken with your funds and your safety. They don’t understand the difference between an inconvenience and a few deaths until CNN puts 2 and 2 together, comes up with 5 and reads it to them as a headline. Then it’s a crisis where finger pointing becomes the most important outcome.

    What do we do for now? Plan for how to fly without the aid of a tower. Remember, see and avoid is the first rule of flight whether there is a tower there or not. Use a little courtesy in the pattern. Do you really have to land this second, or can you extend your downwind a mile to let a couple of planes sitting at the end of the runway to get out?

    What to do for the future? The biggest thing you can do is let your president and your congressmen know that the way they are failing to manage this country is unacceptable. The last election virtually endorsed this type of mismanagement. So this is what we will live with for the next 2 – 4 years. What are you willing to do to change it for the next election?

    Be careful out there and don’t become one of their statistics.

    • Jhjardine says

      Jscott, I think the govt, and rather the administration, does know the difference. Don’t mistake them as fools. They expect to see and take advantage of an accident in order to win the political argument over government spending at large. Like I say above, GA is being used as a political weapon and I could not resent that more!!

  5. Otto Keeslling says

    After the FAA has closed these, I suppose contract tower and there is a mid-collision, God forbide. Who is going to be to blame. I think I know the answer.

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