Sequestration and Aviation: Tower Closures Just the Beginning
April 1, 2013
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    The FAA lowered the boom on airports serving mainly GA, business and regional airline traffic, announcing on March 22 that it will close 149 ATC contract towers as part of its effort to slash spending by more than $600 million in the current fiscal year under the federal government’s “sequester” mandate. The action could spell the end of the agency’s 30-year-old contract tower program. Part 91 and other operators will have to adjust the way they fly to newly non-towered fields or consider flying to airports that do have towers.

    The agency said it will start closing the towers on April 7. The 149 facilities represent 59 percent of the 251 total federal contract towers. Twenty-four contract towers that were previously targeted for closure were spared. Another 16 that are funded through a cost-sharing program are subject to a 5-percent cut through sequestration but will not close. Forty-nine of the FAA’s own ATC facilities that were targeted for possible closure are subject to negotiation with the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA), so remain open.

    “This is just unprecedented,” said Spencer Dickerson, executive director of the U.S. Contract Tower Association (CTA). “It’s an attack on the contract tower program, it’s an attack on general aviation, it’s an attack on rural airports like I’ve never seen before and we’re going to do everything we can to stop the FAA from proceeding.”

    The FAA’s decision to close the towers was confirmed after a last-ditch effort mounted by Republican Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas. During debate on a new short-term funding measure to keep the federal government operating, senators introduced amendments seeking to protect specific programs from the impact of the sequester. Moran proposed an amendment that would have added $50 million to the FAA’s operations account to keep contract towers funded through September, the end of Fiscal Year 2013. While some amendments succeeded, Moran’s never came up for a vote in the Democrat-controlled Senate.

    House Republican leaders charged that the White House was complicit in stifling the measure to drive home the pain of sequestration. “The committee staff and I have looked at the budgets of the FAA. We believe they have flexibility to move money around, to keep some of these [towers] open, to keep all of them open maybe,” House Transportation Committee chairman Bill Shuster, R-Pa., told airport executives meeting in Washington on March 20. “I think the administration wants to scare some folks out there.”

    FAA Challenges To Meet Goal

    The next day at the same conference, Lawrence Krauter, CEO of Spokane International Airport, stood up and asked FAA Administrator Michael Huerta to think it over. “We have a contract tower in Spokane. We’re obviously concerned about the actions that have been proposed to close down the program,” Krauter said. “For us, it’s only fair to ask you personally to please reconsider this action. We understand that these types of things can be politicized by the White House; we understand this wasn’t your decision. But we don’t think that the FAA Administrator in all the power and authority granted to you really should allow this program to be disproportionately cut.”

    Huerta explained the agency’s challenge in meeting the sequester target across three of its four major funding areas: operations, facilities and equipment and research. The Airport Improvement Program, which provides grants for airport development, is exempt from sequestration. “Within air traffic, within the complement of their budget, I have two choices: I cut contracts or I cut people,” he said. “We’re a personnel-heavy organization; about 70 percent of our budget is spent on people, and the contract side is the next largest. These are awful choices.” In making cuts, the agency has adopted the principle of causing “the least amount of impact to the largest number of travelers,” he said.

    That principle disqualified Spokane’s Felts Field. Given that eventuality, Krauter told AIN the airport would explore a “legal remedy” to overturning the FAA’s decision.

    Three companies–Midwest ATC Services, Robinson Aviation and Serco Management Services–manage 245 of the 251 towers in the FAA’s contract tower program; Air National Guard contractors manage the others under an interagency agreement. The program has a Fiscal Year 2013 budget of $145 million, and employs about 1,315 full- and part-time controllers. About 25 percent of the contract towers are unionized, represented by Natca. While Serco is the American division of the UK-based Serco Group, a diversified government services company, the two other companies could be crippled by the sudden loss of contracts.

    Contract tower advocates often point to an audit report the Department of Transportation inspector general issued last November to argue their case. That report, based on a review of 30 randomly selected contract towers and 30 comparable FAA towers, found that contract towers cost, on average, $1.5 million less to operate due to lower staffing and salary levels. They also had a “significantly lower” number and rate of safety incidents. However, the IG advised that the FAA could strengthen its financial controls and safety oversight of the program.

    Far-Reaching Effects

    The pending tower closures have garnered early attention, but sequestration will affect aviation in other ways. The FAA plans to require most of its 47,000 employees to take an unpaid furlough day during each two-week pay period beginning on April 21. Reduced staffing levels at the agency’s 81 Flight Standards District Offices (FSDOs) will likely slow processing of airline/air charter and airmen certifications by the field offices.

    “The FAA has told us, point blank, that certification will either slow or it could even cease in some cases and be limited to only certification activities that impact safety,” said Melissa Rudinger, AOPA senior vice president of government affairs. “We already have a clogged pipeline; we fully expect it to clog even more and, unfortunately for general aviation, we’re not as high on the priority list. A third-class [private pilot] medical is certainly not going to get processed as quickly as a first-class [air transport] medical.”

    Huerta told airport executives that sequestration “will impact air traffic control services, our implementation of NextGen, and our certification and aviation safety services.”

    The contract tower closures are sequestration’s first and perhaps biggest bite. Dickerson said “it’s very unlikely [the towers] would come back” after being closed, and he expects the FAA will eventually target the surviving contract towers.

    “It’s like they’re playing chicken with our lives,” said Todd Johnson, tower manager at Frederick Municipal Airport in Maryland. Johnson is a 33-year veteran controller who spent 20 years in the U.S. Navy managing aircraft. He said most of the contract controllers are military veterans. The Frederick tower, managed by Midwest ATC Services, was built with $5.3 million in federal money through the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. It opened last May; now it will be closed.

    If this is the beginning of the end of the contract tower program, it began recently. On February 22, the FAA published a list of 238 ATC towers that have fewer than 150,000 total flight operations and fewer than 10,000 commercial flight operations per year–its criteria in considering which facilities to close. The list included 195 federal contract towers and 43 FAA-staffed towers, according to the CTA. The FAA has also said that it will eliminate midnight controller shifts at more than 60 towers.

    In early March, airports on the tower closure list received a notification from the FAA signed by Huerta and FAA Air Traffic Organization (ATO) COO David Grizzle. Airport operators were offered the opportunity to submit arguments for keeping a particular tower based on a national-interest standard. “Negative impact on the national interest is the only criterion the FAA will use for deciding to continue services to an airport that falls below the activity threshold,” the letter states. It closes by referring the airports to a 1999 advisory circular (AC 90-93A) that provides recommended procedures for operating non-federal contract towers at airport expense.

    Another airfield that didn’t make the FAA’s cut is Waukesha County Airport, near Milwaukee, Wis. The county-owned airport claims to be the busiest GA airport in Wisconsin and the state’s fourth busiest overall, with 57,377 operations last year. It is home base for 238 aircraft and two flight schools, a Flight for Life air-medical base and private owners and companies. Flight Options and NetJets provide fractional jet services. The tower is staffed by controllers from Midwest ATC Services and remains open from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m.

    “We’ve been able through the federal contract program to provide an outstanding service to our corporate clients and our general aviation clients that’s helped the airport grow,” airport manager Kurt Stanich told AIN. “We’ve really become the hub of the corporate aviation world for southeastern Wisconsin and the region based on the services we provide, which is not only the control tower but the terminal, the good FBO facility, avionics repair, maintenance repair and jet management companies. We’ve attracted a lot of people here. They’ve come here partly because of the control tower and the good service that it provides.”

    That activity will likely be diminished if the tower closes. Stanich believes pilots and operators in their pre-flight calculations will “have a greater propensity” to fly to a towered airfield. “I don’t even know how to assign a percentage to it or venture a guess, but I do believe we’ll see reduced traffic,” he said.

    Ed Bolen, NBAA president and CEO, cited both economic and safety consequences of sequestration cuts in a March 12 letter to Grizzle. Of particular concern, Bolen said, is the agency’s tower-closure plan, which will shift the workload of controlling IFR flights and delivering clearances and releases from the closed towers to the FAA Terminal radar approach control (Tracon) facilities responsible for the overlying airspace. He called upon the FAA “to clearly state the restoration policy” for airport equipment to ensure that airports with closed towers have in place a remote ILS monitor, AWOS/ASOS and ATIS automated weather observing and terminal information services and a remote communications capability to support IFR traffic. “NBAA plans to advise our membership that at least in the initial phases of sequestration closures/cutbacks, they will need to increase their fuel reserves and expect efficiency delays,” Bolen wrote.


    Non-tower Operations

    In the case of a tower closure, the airport reverts to a non-towered environment, and in most cases from Class D airspace to Class E. The FAA terminal or en route facility responsible for the overlying airspace becomes responsible for operations normally handled by the contract towers.

    Pilots entering the airspace around a non-towered airport “self separate” by radioing their intentions over the common traffic advisory frequency, starting about 10 miles out. They announce when and where they enter the traffic pattern and as they fly the pattern to land. Pilots flying instrument approaches to newly non-towered airports may not have ATC service to the airport surface and must take care to see and avoid other traffic. They must obtain a clearance for the approach from the Tracon or other FAA facility responsible for the overlying airspace, then contact ATC upon landing to cancel the clearance. When departing a non-towered airport, they must be released by the responsible control facility.

    “We’re trained for it; we come up through the pilot ranks and get our instrument ratings and we fly in and out of uncontrolled fields all the time,” said Waukesha (Wis.) County Airport manager Kurt Stanich. “But those uncontrolled fields, or pilot-controlled fields, generally have a lot less traffic than our airport does, and the airplanes that are flying are more consistent with each other.”

    NBAA advises that pilots operating under an IFR flight plan to a newly non-towered airport “will need to be prepared for the transition from the positive-control environment of instrument flight when approaching their destination.” Pilots should keep their eyes outside the cockpit to see and avoid other traffic, monitor the radio to ascertain the positions of other aircraft in the vicinity, communicate their own position and cooperate with other pilots to establish the safest approach to the airport.

    “It’s important to note that most of the Class D towers facing closure did not provide separation services, merely advisories, so pilots were still responsible for maintaining separation from other traffic. However, knowledge of that extra set of eyes having followed their flight in the past may now lead to diminished situational awareness for some pilots,” the association said.

    “The challenge at a [previously] towered airport is, first of all many of these airports have had control towers for years, so folks are accustomed to operating in and out of a controlled environment versus a non-towered [environment],” observed Melissa Rudinger, AOPA senior vice president of government affairs. “And it has impacts on the efficiency of the operation. Obviously, if you’re self-separating, it’s not quite as efficient. You don’t have somebody orchestrating the orderly flow in and out, timing departures with arrivals.”

    Rudinger said that in many cases, especially involving business aircraft, pilots may choose to fly to an airport that does have a tower. Or they may be required by their company’s policy or its insurance policy to operate only into towered airports. She does not think that self-separation by pilots is unsafe, agreeing with others that pilots should be familiar with flying VFR in non-controlled airport environments.

    “It’s not that it’s inherently unsafe,” said Rudinger. “Our bigger beef is that the FAA created this list [of tower closures] without doing any kind of safety assessment. It didn’t look at the location of the tower relative to other airports, relative to other types of airspace or air traffic operations. It didn’t even look at the mix of traffic beyond a rudimentary calculation.”