By Alan Levin
Closing almost half of U.S. air- traffic towers, as regulators plan if automatic budget cuts remain in place April 1, would put student, military, corporate and some commercial flights in the same airspace without eyes and ears to track them.
Airport officials were told the Federal Aviation Administration plans to close 168 towers operated by contractors on April 1 and an additional 21 on Sept. 30, Spencer Dickerson, a president of the American Association of Airport Executives, said in an interview.
Dickerson said he’s concerned about safety, which U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood pledged wouldn’t be compromised by budget cuts.
“Closing 168 towers in a single day, that’s no April Fool’s joke,” Dickerson said. “It’s unprecedented.”
The 189 facilities targeted for closing are 75 percent of the U.S. air towers staffed by controllers who work for private companies, rather than for the FAA. An affiliate of Dickerson’s Alexandria, Virginia-based trade group represents these contract towers, which were begun in 1982 as a less-expensive means of adding controllers at smaller airports.
An additional 49 towers staffed by FAA controllers are to be shut down, according a list released Feb. 22 by the agency. In all, the aviation agency has said it may close 46 percent of the 514 towers in the U.S.
The airports where towers may close had more than 200,000 airline and charter flights last year through November, according to U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics data compiled by Bloomberg.
The towers were chosen because they each serve fewer than 150,000 flights and fewer than 10,000 commercial operations a year, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta told Congress Feb. 27. The agency must cut $627 million in expenses by Sept. 30 if across-the-board cuts known as sequestration go into effect.
Closing a tower doesn’t mean closing an airport. Most of the roughly 5,000 U.S. public airports don’t have towers. Pilots follow long-established procedures to fly there, Bruce Landsberg, president of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association’s Air Safety Institute, said in an interview. AOPA is an advocacy group for private pilots based in Frederick, Maryland.
Instead of coordinating with a controller, pilots radio each other directly to announce their intentions to land or take off, he said.
At 15 of the airports slated to have towers closed, there were fewer than 20,000 flights in 2011, according to FAA data. That translates to about 55 flights a day.
As flights drop, the risks of a collision between two planes decreases, negating the safety benefits of having a tower, Landsberg said.
“There are places where the increase in safety is almost negligible,” he said.
Having controllers on duty makes the most difference at busier airports, especially those made more complex by large numbers of student pilots in propeller-driven aircraft mixed in with jet-powered planes, he said.
Those types of planes fly at different speeds and controllers can ensure that they don’t stray to close to each other, preventing collisions on the ground and in the air, he said. Controllers also keep flights moving more efficiently, he said.
St. Lucie County International Airport in Fort Pierce, Florida, one of those that may lose controllers in its tower, had 137,680 landings and takeoffs in 2011, the second-most on the FAA’s list, according to agency data compiled by Bloomberg. Its tower is staffed by FAA employees, not contractors.
The airport serves as an entry point for flights to the U.S. from the Bahamas and has a U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility, John Wiatrak, the airport manager, said in an interview.
It also has a flight school, so student pilots often mix with corporate jets, Wiatrak said.
“The safety impacts, they are obvious,” he said of the need for controllers to keep order in the skies.
Businesses like the ATA Flight School at North Perry Airport in Hollywood, Florida, will have to curtail flights if the tower there closed, said Michael Punziano, the school’s owner. The airport normally has landings and takeoffs on two runways at a time. Without a tower, it would use just one, Punziano said.
“There is no way they can maintain the density of traffic at this airport without a tower,” Punziano said. “No way.”
Seventy-six of the 238 airports where towers would close averaged at least one commercial flight a day last year through November, according to U.S. data compiled by Bloomberg.
Pinnacle Airlines Corp. (PNCLQ), for example, operates flights into Central Illinois Regional Airport in Bloomington, Illinois, under contract to Delta Air Lines Inc. Closely held Air Wisconsin Airlines Corp. flies for US Airways Group Inc. to Ithaca Tompkins Regional Airport in New York.
Airlines will be able to continue flying into airports that lose their towers, Kelly Murphy, a spokeswoman for the Regional Airline Association, a Washington-based trade group, said in an e-mail.
“We certainly expect to see reductions in capacity and efficiency at these airports,” Murphy said.