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.