Why get upset about towers closing?

Starting April 7, the FAA will close 149 contract air traffic control towers to help reduce expenditures as required by sequestration. General aviation uses thousands of airports that do not have towers, so why are GA advocates getting upset over the closing of these towers?

That’s a question many pilots are asking. Answer: The closings have the potential for many more problems than just the 149 airports.

Let’s look at some numbers. There are three kinds of air traffic control towers: Those run by the FAA, those run by contract operators, and those run by the military. There are about 5,000 public-use airports in the United States. Add in private airports and the figure climbs to about 16,000 landing facilities. There are approximately 500 airports with towers.So, if pilots have been using about 15,500 airports without towers, why get upset over closing a miniscule number?

First and foremost is safety, according to officials with GA’s alphabet groups.

Officials at the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) begin by reminding us that the U.S. has the largest, safest aviation system in the world and it must be kept that way.

They go on to say that the towers were established at these airports because the FAA considered them necessary for safety. If that was true when they were established, it is logical that it would still be true, NBAA officials say.

While recognizing safety as a prime concern, members of the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) have expressed mixed concerns to association officials about the closures. Some members are unconcerned over the closures; others support the association’s efforts to prevent closures, according to EAA officials.

What EAA officials want to do is alert their members — and all of GA — to “the broader issue than merely closing a few towers.”

“General aviation would like to see the FAA have more flexibility,” EAA officials say.

Officials at the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) also stress safety as a primary reason for not making these “arbitrary closures.” They also cite other reasons for concern, including the mix of traffic at various airports ­— business aviation, flight training, cargo flights and more — and weather conditions at various locations.

Perhaps the biggest concern among those tasked with protecting GA is the question, “Is this just the beginning?”

Sequestration is not just a temporary inconvenience. Unless Congress takes some action, it will remain in effect for 10 years.

GA advocates are concerned about what this might mean over the years. Some questions that have already arisen include:

  • What else might be stopped or reduced?
  • How will this impact the FAA’s review and approval of new aviation products for the market?
  • Will the FAA make more arbitrary decisions about what to cut or change on more issues, at added locations?
  • What will be the economic impact of tower closures on businesses on or near airports, as well as on the communities they serve?
  • How will emergency flights be affected?
  • Will business flights continue to use airports where the tower is closed and where there might be a mix of traffic and if not, how will this affect these companies and the companies that depend on business aviation?
  • Will there be more danger for aircraft flying IFR approaches when there are no local controllers and no local weather condition reports?

There are between 700 and 1,000 controllers working at contract towers who will be furloughed. Groups opposing the tower closures say the monetary savings of the FAA’s action will be miniscule compared to potential accidents, safe operations, and the economic losses for businesses.


  1. drew says

    conventional towered airports have lower thruput than non towered. controllers slow things down. that’ s why there are fewer ops
    ( try mht where we have to fly 5 mile downwind, base and final legs for the”sequence”) instead of direct airport to land. ) 15 extra miles, 10 extra minutes $20 extra bucks each time)

    osh and sunfun and sef do better with temp controllers but they are exception ..
    2) 800 controllers at 100k each is 80 million. as a ga pilot 1 of 500000, that means i would have to pay $160 per year for these controllers to get in way. no thanks.

  2. says

    One of the most enjoyable parts of getting my emails is receiving and reading the General Aviation News. In the spirit of a full disclosure, I am a Canadian and a pilot, and I fly to the US from time to time; therefore, I am interested in what is going on, but I am not politically inclined in any way. For the past several weeks, I observed the emotional and sometime even heated discussion on the tower closures issue. This is what I came to understand from what I read to date.

    • The president has the ultimate power over all of the other lawmakers of the US government; he hates general aviation, and is to blame for the tower closures. The House and the Congress have no hand in this.

    • The FAA may be top heavy, and there may even be some waste in the organization, but because of the President’s tantrum, the towers must go; however, those on the chopping block must not be FAA operated towers.

    Some of the posts here, and in other publications, are peppered with good suggestions, others simply point fingers, but they all seem to be going after the symptoms, not after the underlying problems of the situation. Here is what one of your fellow readers, Glenn Darr, has to say on the subject in his post below.

    “When the country has been drained of good paying manufacturing jobs you have lost a lot of the tax base that was relied upon to pay for our nation’s infrastructure.”

    Is he the only one who understands the real problem with our two nations? I remember the days when the best television one could buy was made in US by Zenith. Cessna built planes in the US, Cadillac was a status symbol, and many families were able to live on one income. You are right Glen; the government had the tax base to support the nation’s infrastructure needs then.

    Glenn goes on saying.

    “We are getting what we have sown. Trade agreements that seem to favor overseas companies, etc. have done their part to lower our standards in this country.”

    I think it may be worthwhile to look closer on our own industries. Apple, the highest valued company in the world at one point, does not make any of their products in the US, yet they expect us all to buy their Chinese-made widgets. Let us not blame China for this, let us put the blame squarely where it belongs – our own greed.

  3. Dave says

    The politics of all of this is obvious, if you are really annoyed, there is elections next year…throw the bums out if you can and let them know why. That is, if you can find out who the bums really are.

    It would seem the FAA has wanted to close many of these obsolete towers for years, given this opportunity, how could they resist. Let’s face it, General Aviation is slowly dying for a variety of reasons, over regulation, environmental concerns, public perception, loss of manufactures, the cost of entry, etc. In the future, there will be less need for controlled towers. The Europeans are now testing virtual towers, they will be part of our future.

    In the mean time, invest in TCAS, ADS-B traffic, know the non-controlled procedures and look out the windows. Courtesy is also useful. We lived without controlled towers in the past, as does most of the rest of the world, it will be just fine. Look at the positive, I will bet FAA violations go way down.

  4. Steve says

    Charles must be another msnbc lemming democrat. Lives in DC. What a surprise.
    Wake-up people.
    These democrats are destroying GA and the country.

    • says

      Yes; and THOSE (1 in 1,400?) and other socialist who believe EVERYONE else should pay for THEIR flying – recreational aviators – get my drift?

  5. Thomas Hsueh says

    FAA and other government agencies contract some of their operations out to commercial contractors for good reasons, to lower cost and gain better efficiency with non union workers. Logic tells me that if towers are to be closed to save cost, FAA should close the union worker operated towers first or replace the union workers with contract workers. All American workers have equal rights to compete for any governmental jobs and commercial tower operators like any other business have the right to earn money and provider better services to the public at the same time. Is FAA administrator afraid of the labor union? President Regan fired all the striking union air traffic controllers because he had the interest of the American public and our nation in mind and he was a man. FAA should not single out contracted towers for closure. It is down right wrong.

    Thomas Hsueh
    Triton Aerospace

    • Roy Fassel says

      Tom: Great comment. This is a a bunch of C#@&p. The people in the white house think were a bunch of idots.

  6. Mack Kreizenbeck says

    As usual the Western states don’t have the political clout of the East. Two states, Idaho and Oregon, are giving up 4 towers each for 5% of the total 149, whereas it would be less painful if each of the 48 state were to give up 3 towers or 2%!

    The FAA is not thinking about safety in their closures, for example Hailey, Friedman Memorial (KSUN), Sun Valley, Idaho is third in number of operations within Idaho.
    This airport is located in a small, heavily populated box canyon, 5300 ft elevation with 9000 ft mountains on three sides (no turn around room for missed approaches) “one-way runway” 31 for landing and 13 for take offs.

    Another safety hazard has KSUN traffic crossing a major East/West flyway (Boise to Idaho Falls route) approximately 5 miles South of the airport.

    Twin Falls (KTWF), is located 70+/- miles South of Hailey is wide open with no appendages to contend with, very little commercial activity and is number 10 in operations.
    This is the airport that the FAA has elected to keep the tower open.
    Could it be that KTWF is a FAA operated tower and KSUN and the other three proposed tower closures within Idaho are privately contracted?

    Another prime example of the bureaucracy thinking process??????

    FYI Idaho has the largest number of pilots, second only to Alaska!

  7. John Wesley says

    Instead of setting around wringing our hands and lamenting the closure of 149 useless towers, a good start, we should be wringing our hands and lamenting the sad state of the GA airports in this country. Unless you happen to live in a large metropolitan area, you cant find an airport with more than minimal service, if any at all. This is a serious problem, but nobody seems worried about that, if something isn’t done about the demise of airports and airport services, we wont need any control towers.

  8. Andy says

    The Secretaries of each of the Government departments under sequestration budget cuts are appointed by and report directly to the office of the President. In any rational world, under such challenging budget cuts, the President should lead the budget cuting actions by reviewing each Secretary’s approach in detail. This takes effort, hard work and time because as we all know, a budget isn’t about numbers, it’s about choices. Instead of doing the job he got elected for, managing the departments, our President spends his time using the transportation system at great cost aboard our Air Force One flying around politicking. This politicking creates no value, no jobs and has no economic benefit to anyone, unlike the GA industry he is so willing to put down. This is who the American public voted into office. We need to all stand together against this arrogant, intellectual approach to governing, fight these ineffective, destructive policies while we can until we can hopefully replace him and his administration in the next election. Use the tools we have, AOPA, GAMA, letters to your congressmen and get involved, because no one else is going to do it for us.

  9. Richard Baker says

    The entire sequester foolishness is the President’s temper tantrum because anyone dares to disagree with him. Remember, the sequester was HIS idea.

  10. vmachale says

    Anybody who thinks this is a good idea needs to have their head examined. Its been 20 years since I have controlled, but I can do simple math. 149 towers with an average of 100,000 ops per year averages to 15,000,000 operations per year. Now let’s just pretend that only 10% of those pilots are people who should not be driving a car, let alone an airplane. So now you are down to 1,500,000 operations with pilots who don’t know the difference between N, S, E, or W, the difference between a left base and a right base, or who are confused as to which runway is in use. Let us not forget the VERY common occurrence where the pilot is at the wrong airport. (From experience, I know that the pilots who yell the loudest are typically the ones that need the most help) These pilots don’t just magically appear at level 1 facilities, they transverse airspace. Airspace over high density populations. Airspace with commuters, other VFR aircraft and even air carriers. People are going to die. It would be naïve to think that 1,500,000, let alone 15,000,000 ops per year without basic assistance will not result in serious problems. Hopefully none of the people who so brazenly discount the service and value of the contract towers will be impacted.

  11. Ed Watson says

    I’m confused. The growth rate was for a 10% increase in spending. That increase got cut to 7% by the “sequester”, so, IF grown men were running this country we would have cut the number of NEW towers and controllers by 3%, but no, our “leaders” need to make the cuts hurt, so we cut in places that simply reflect our stupidity. New “leaders” are needed.

  12. says

    Safety? Well, the fact is, a LOT of these towers have fewer annual operations than the busier uncontrolled fields you’ve flown into. http://www.Airnav.com lists the daily operations for each airport, although some of the data is dated. I analyzed the to-be-closed towers in Kansas using the FAA’s own data and compared it to the busier uncontrolled fields. Some of the tower fields had half the operations of the uncontrolled fields. A couple were averaging about 5 takeoffs and landings an hour. I can assure you that we pilots know how to work with 5 takeoffs and landings an hour in an uncontrolled environment.

  13. atcforlife says

    “They go on to say that the towers were established at these airports because the FAA considered them necessary for safety. If that was true when they were established, it is logical that it would still be true, NBAA officials say.”

    This is not true. Many of these towers came into existence thru earmarks/pork. There was no FAA requirement for these facilities and the budget item to operate them was bloated by the same political process that created them.

  14. says

    Our airport (KSAF) receives 6 RJ and 4 Beech 1900 flights a day, and there are no plans to discontinue this service after the tower closes May 7. So yes, Part 121 carriers will continue to use newly uncontrolled fields. But between the airliners, our air national guard helo base, firefighting aircraft during June and July, about 20 daily corporate bizjet and turbojet flights, the Jet Warbird (L39) Training Center, and two flight schools, mixing the traffic is going to be interesting.

    But we sure have a lot of questions! Who will run the unicom? Right now, it’s the receptionist at the FBO. Will they offer Airport Advisory Service? How will IFR flight plans be closed, since there is no RCO to Center (tower did it by phone)? The list goes on and on, and no one yet has any answers.

  15. says

    Will it be unsafe… probably not. Should some of these airports have closed their towers as the number of flight ops dwindled probably so. Should all these towers be closed? NO! The route to these and other cuts is to do the most visible cuts possible. They are throwing a “temper tantrum” that their budgets were cut, and want to keep these cuts front and center so all the special interest groups push for budget increases. My question is the FAA’s budget is only 3B from the general fund the rest (13B I think) is from Aviation Trust Fund (Aviation taxes such as ticket fees, fuel tax, etc) So the Sequester should of only cut 3.5% (or what ever the percent was) from the amount covered from the general fund. I think it will turn out that they cut too much.

  16. Roy Fassel says

    Can part 121 carriers operate out of/ or into non-towered airports? Us GA folks are not asking all the questions. Having operated as PIC for more then 50 years in non-towered
    doesn’t bother me at all, however turning short final in front of an inbound IFR 737, and declairing ” 27 HA turning final, runway 12, Hobby Houston” does concern me. You say that can’t happen on this cut. What about next cut. Does this mean GA will have blakout periods into the next 200 tower clousers? Your comments please.

  17. Glenn Darr says

    When the country has been drained of good paying manufacturing jobs you have lost a lot of the tax base thas was relied upon to pay for our nation’s infrastructure. How can you maintain a good infrastructure when most employment in this country is service (low pay) oriented? I know, I used to make that good manufacturing pay 30 years ago, but no more.
    We are getting what we have sown. Trade agreements that seem to favor over seas companies, etc. have done their part to lower our standards in this country.

    • Curious George says

      unfortunately, you are correct. We have significantly fewer wealth creation industries than we did 20 years ago. While we have “knowledge” workers, they don’t require significant infrastructure (and they can easily!! be “off shored”). Where we once had nearly 200 smelters in the US we have… maybe one. Where we once had hundreds of cement plants… same thing… off shore. Saw mills and pulp mills? Nah, can’t log so don’t need ’em. How about oil refineries. Last one was built in the Carter years (over lots of opposition). Mining? Forget it. Manufacturing? China has a lock on it. Regulations? Now, that’s something we do very well! We can’t afford the towers we’ve got. Part 121 can operate safely from non-towered airports. For example, KPUW and KEAT. I’d rather see the $550,000 per year we spend (not INVEST!) on the average contract tower invested in infrastructure like NextGen or pavement.

  18. Russell Craig says

    I think that some tower closers would be safe, but to close all the towers that are scheduled is a political move. There are a lot of places where money could be saved, but it isn’t politically noticeable to the public. I suggest foreign aid for one!

    • Don Mack says

      … And the administration wants to blame the those who disagree with their ideology… so they have no reason to lessen the public impact (pain), hoping that the voters will blame their opposition… The event that was really telling for me was when the opportunity was provided to the administration to select specific cuts to lessen the pain on the country that the “across-the-board” cuts would have… the offer was summarily refused… I really hope the “low-information” voters are paying attention to what’s really going on… but I expect not…

  19. Otto Keesling says

    The closing of the contract towers is very sad. They were very efficient and we don’t know how many mid-air-collisions were prevented every year. Needless to say the money that was saved by users of the IFR system. Departure and arrival delays are reduced at towered airports as well as emergency services enhanced. Air carriers at these airports will also pay a price because as we all know that time is money and they will encouter delays in departure releases and arrival cancellations which will cause extended arrival seperation/delays. Not to mention at least 1,000 hard working controllers out of a job. Sad commentary.

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