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.