There is a lot of chatter about the pending tower closures. Yet I don’t hear anyone asking, “Do we need this control tower?”
Immediately after the FAA released its tower closure list, the newly elected Congressman from my district, Denny Heck, issued a press release regarding Olympia Regional (OLM) and Tacoma Narrows (TIW) airports: “This is yet another example of the very real impact that sequestration is beginning to have on the South Puget Sound. I remain committed to replacing sequestration with a balanced approach to debt reduction that won’t harm our local economy or our military readiness. My office is also in contact with the FAA to see if there are any steps that can be taken to prevent the closure of these important components of our regional infrastructure.”
Sadly, this is exactly what I would expect to hear from my Congressman. So I wrote back to Phil Gardner, Heck’s press secretary who sent me the press release, and asked, “Did Congressman Heck ask… do we need these control towers? Where is the critical thinking?”
He told me the staff reached out to the Port of Olympia, which owns and operates OLM, and the port “expressed deep concern about the closure of their tower.” Hardly an objective voice or analytical analysis, in my opinion.
There is no doubt that a control tower delivers added benefit to an airport. But at what cost? There are thousands of airports without a control tower that operate just fine.
In fact, some airports might benefit from a control tower. But I’d like to see the FAA, our association leadership, and the pilot population ask, Do we need this control tower? It matters not if the tower is operated by the FAA or is under contract. The acid test should be need — and yes, within need is safety.
I don’t operate in the corporate end of general aviation spectrum, so I’m quickly over my head when taking that segment of the population into account.
“There are no regulations or insurance policies, that I’m aware of, that prevent any aircraft from operating at a non-tower controlled airport,” said Jon Harden, owner of Aviation Insurance Resources. “Any operational restrictions I’ve seen come from the flight department or corporate policy.”
So the insurance underwriters don’t prevent operations at non-tower controlled airports.
“We can operate where we need to as long as the airport can handle our aircraft,” said Paul Wulfestieg, a fellow Lakewood Rotarian and current Boeing Business Jet pilot. His concern about tower closures focused on the mix of aircraft at some airports. That is a concern I understand.
Another friend of mine flies a Gulfstream globally from the East Coast. He and his colleagues have been tracking the discussion closely. They are most concerned with delay factor. Safety is paramount, but “people fly corporate jets because it saves them time,” he said.
One of his frequent destination is Naples, Florida, which happens to be on the tower closure list. While Naples does have radar coverage, there is a great deal of flight training at the airport and “the volume of traffic could be problematic on VFR days as small light aircraft mix with busy corporate jet activity.”
There’s the second mention of aircraft mix — a real concern from the perspective of the high-end operator.
Ravi, an aviation motivational speaker, commented on a tower-closure story on our website, “I can’t help but wonder if we, the aviation community and specifically GA, are missing a real opportunity in this. Pilots are trained for CTAF, and most GA pilots fly in/out of non-towered airports all the time…and prefer it. Many of these small towered airports serving airlines were part-time towers anyway, meaning that even those airline pilots are familiar with the process.
I see this as a great opportunity for GA to showcase its safety, independent of government systems. It’s a way to encourage more people to fly (and learn to fly) without pressures typically associated with towers. Imagine if our industry leaders responded by saying, ‘We commend the FAA for recognizing how safe general aviation is and its ability to independently operate in airspace shared by commercial operations.’”
There are myriad perspectives in this discussion, far beyond what I’ve discussed here. For that reason, I hope the discussion will someday be steered to asking, “Do we need this tower?”
Work the discussion, airport by airport, rather than with some arbitrary formula, and see where the answers lead. I have no doubt many control towers (both FAA and contract) will justifiably remain open, while others will justifiably be closed.
Critical thought and respectful discussion is what will resolve this issue. No longer should we accept mere band-aids. Will the budget challenges of the U.S. be solved on the backs of control towers? Nope, but our part of the equation starts with a simple question, “Do we need this tower?”