The quagmire for the FAA then becomes, if control towers are necessary for airport safety, how could the agency possibly be attempting to cut them out of the National Airspace System (NAS) without first conducting a thorough audit of how those shutdowns might affect airport operations? Or, if the towers were never necessary for safety reasons, why did the FAA support the contract tower program in the first place?
These legal issues certainly made Fulton wonder from Austin. “What concerned me the most is that there are 251 contract towers in the program that handle 30 percent of towers operated in the United States. And the FAA says that [cutting most of them] wouldn’t affect safety, which is somehow confusing to me. We [originally] built those towers for safety and economic development.”
When the FAA announced the potential closings in March, Administrator Michael Huerta claimed the agency had analyzed the safety issues and concluded safety was not a concern, a finding industry experts doubted considering the workload involved in reviewing data from hundreds of airports. Then too, there were the public comments from many airport managers claiming no one from the FAA had ever contacted them to so much as discuss safety issues before making a shutdown decision.
Fulton spoke to another critical element in the contract tower debate: “ATC is not bounded by geography. It has always been a national responsibility and to say that this not a federal responsibility makes no sense to me. The FAA’s own audit said they provide comparable service at much less cost.”
Poole raised another concern that he’s spoken on time and again over the past decade … privatization of the ATC system. “I think the perspective on ATC privatization has changed recently. People are really fed up to their eyeballs with the Administration,” he says. “I think this [contract tower issue and controller furloughs] has been a wakeup call to everyone, especially since the Airport and Airway Trust Fund was set up from the beginning specifically to protect the system against these kinds of problems.”
Despite the value of organizations like the Contract Tower Association and other alphabet groups, no one should depend on one group to handle the necessary heavy lifting to prevent a repeat of the financial and operational chaos the system just avoided. “I don’t think this was a scare tactic either,” Dickerson says. “We and 40 airports didn’t think safety should have been politicized. We won the battle but the war continues.”
Jennifer Imo, executive director of the General Aviation Airport Coalition, which claims over a hundred general aviation airports as members, says, “Airport managers should be assessing all of their options right now. They should be calling their congressional delegations to advocate for continued federal funding for the contract tower program in FY 2014, and mobilizing local supporters to do the same. They should be talking to local leadership about budgeting to pay controllers past FY 2013, doing benefit/cost analyses of continuing towered operations—with or without federal funds, and researching the latest technology that provides remote ATC operations for multiple airports—sharing and lowering the cost of operations.”
The fight is not over by any means, stresses Poole.
“Unless something happens [in Congress] to change things, this will start all over again this September for FY 2014,” he says. “I’d be working right now with the Contract Tower Association to develop a funding solution to cover the cost. If you believe the rhetoric that the contract tower program represents a viable option, how can you as a good manager not develop a contingency plan?”
About the Author
Robert Mark ,CEO, CommAvia
Mark, a 35-year aviation-industry thought leader, is CEO of CommAvia, a marketing communications group that delivers leading edge media to the aviation industry, and author of the award-winning industry blog, JetWhine.com. Mark, a commercial pilot who has logged 7,000 flying hours in airliners and business jets, as well as dozens of small training aircraft, is uniquely poised to write about the air traffic control tower issue. He spent 10 years as an air traffic controller and supervisor with the FAA. He can be reached at email@example.com.
The associations have asked Congress for $136.1 million for the fully funded contract towers as well as $10.35 million authorized for the continuation of the Contact Tower Cost-sharing Program.
As part of the agency’s sequestration implementation plan, the FAA will begin a four-week phased closure of the 149 federal contract towers beginning on April 7.
It will delay the closures of all 149 federal contract air traffic control towers until June 15.
FAA announces dates that funding will cease at the following airports.