Local Airports Hit by Sequester Plans
March 14, 2013
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  • By Tom Sabulis

    Under sequester guidelines, the Federal Aviation Administration plans to eliminate contracted payments for control tower workers at smaller airports — those with under 150,000 operations (takeoffs and landings) per year. That could jeopardize efficiency and safety and reduce business at local facilities. Leaders at Cobb and Fulton county airports talk about the impact on their facilities and on Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.

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    Wholesale cuts risk safety, efficiency
    By Carter Chapman

    The FAA has chosen to close control towers with less than 150,000 total operations and 10,000 commercial (airline) operations to meet its required sequestration budget cuts. The Cobb, Gwinnett and Fulton county airport control towers are scheduled to close April 7. The duration is unknown at this time. These are contract towers manned by unionized contractors rather than FAA employees, providing air traffic control services at a lower cost than similar FAA towers.

    Since its inception 30 years ago, the FAA’s Federal Contract Tower (FCT) Program has been successful in providing low-cost air traffic control services to airports that otherwise would not have received these services. The FCT has increased the level of safety at these airports for pilots and the surrounding local communities. Closing these control towers will diminish the margin of safety and slow the flow of traffic.

    Airports for general aviation (civilian flying other than the scheduled airlines) provide speed and efficiency to the nation’s economy, shifting resources, goods and personnel to where they are needed without delay. As a result of these closures, aircraft will land and take off without the benefit of a control tower providing separation. Pilots will have to be responsible for their own separation.

    Arrivals and departures of larger, better-equipped aircraft will be slowed as there will not be any controllers at the airport to report to the distant radar controller that the runway is clear and is ready for the next aircraft to arrive. A worse-case scenario is an aircraft on approach to arrival is unable to land because the runway has not been reported clear, and the aircraft must climb back into some of the world’s most congested airspace and line up to try its approach again.

    Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport creates the congestion over Atlanta. All of the airports in metro area work as a system to provide efficient takeoff and landing options for all types of flying activity, including commercial airline, business, personal, recreational, public safety and emergency medical flights. Air traffic control towers at the five metro Atlanta airports assure that all 1.3 million annual flights through our air space are given the highest margin of safety and efficiency available.

    In Cobb County alone, we average 170 flights per day — up to a peak of 450 flights per day — and 62,000 per year. Cobb County McCollum Field provides 842 jobs dependent on airport activity, with a $112.4 million annual economic impact. More than 200 aircraft are based at McCollum. General aviation provides $1.2 billion in economic impact to the state, with over 10,000 state jobs dependent upon general aviation airport activity.

    The FAA’s decision to close nearly half the air traffic control towers in the country rather than making targeted reductions in hours or service levels at all towers is a decision that should be revisited.

    Carter Chapman is chairman of the Cobb County Airport Advisory Board.

    Airport cuts mean delays, higher fees
    By Tom Sabulis

    Pilots and passengers at smaller metro Atlanta airports will be looking at longer waits and “uncontrolled” airport environments if sweeping federal sequester cuts are handed down. Doug Barrett, manager of Fulton County’s Charlie Brown Field, explained during a conversation this week.

    Q: They’re talking about closing your tower?

    A: They are talking about ceasing payment to contract operators to man the tower. I have a contract company that mans the tower. Their staffing probably varies somewhat. But the issue is, obviously, the FAA is trying to save money as part of this sequestration issue. The contract tower has been put on the radar to meet the cuts.

    Q: Would everyone in the tower be cut, or would you have reduced hours?

    A: It’s basically two shifts (from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.). That’s what the FAA is looking at terminating. There’s about three operators in the United States that provide staff to cover these contract towers, and it is for daytime operations.

    Q: What does a cut like that do to operations at your airport?

    A: It would become what they call an “uncontrolled” field. The vast majority of the 5,000 airports in this country are uncontrolled (where there is no air traffic control service). It means you can still come and go 24/7. There are just operating parameters if you are in a major airspace environment like we are (in metro Atlanta). There may be delays on getting clearance for departure, and you may be vectored around before you can actually get in to land.

    Q: Does this concern Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport?

    A: It does from the point of view that all of the IFR (Instrument Flight Rule) arrival-departures fall on their shoulders. So it loads them up. Every jet operating in and out of this country is operating on an IFR flight plan. Yeah, that would fall immediately on the shoulders of air traffic control Hartsfield.

    Q: How do operations change if you lose a manned tower? Would it be business as usual?

    A: No. I would expect some diminution of traffic based on the particular interest of any individual company that may come and go.

    Q: Would that be because they feel it’s a less safe situation?

    A: I don’t know if it’s necessarily less safe. But it may be more time delay.

    Q: Any way to keep the tower open?

    A: We can keep it open through funding (it) ourselves. We are approaching that very seriously. If they (the FAA) give us the go-ahead, then that is our strong intention.

    Q: How would you fund it?

    A: You’ve got to disseminate the extra cost throughout everybody who uses the airport. The primary way to do that is fuel flowage fees.

    Q: How many takeoffs and landings were there at Charlie Brown Field last year?

    A: About 58,000.