Closed Airport Towers a Potential 'Calamity?' Not Likely
February 22, 2013
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  • By Bob Collins

    With a week to go before “The Sequester,” we’ll be hearing more about what services the government will cut as across-the-board cutbacks are implemented.

    What’s somewhat surprising is we haven’t already been told specifics in some cases and an appearance by outgoing transportation secretary Ray LaHood in the White House briefing room underscores the lack of detail.

    Lahood told reporters that more than 100 air traffic control towers would be closed, and suggested that travelers could feel the pain.

    “Travelers should expect delays of up to 90 minutes at peak airports during sequester,” starting on April 1, LaHood said. “It’s going to be very painful for the flying public.”

    The airlines aren’t buying LaHood’s assessment that it could be “a calamity.”

    “When they see the kind of cutbacks that are going to be made at some of these towers, they’re going to have no choice,” LaHood countered.

    Linking the closing of air traffic control towers with delays by airline travelers also ignores one truth: Most air traffic control towers aren’t in cities where most travelers go. And closing an airport’s control tower doesn’t close an airport.

    Take Minnesota, for example. There’s only one very important control tower — the one at Minneapolis Saint Paul International Airport. But it’s not Minnesota’s only control tower. Presumably, the FAA wouldn’t close the tower at such a large airport, not when there are so many other candidates.

    There are three other towers in the state staffed by FAA controllers.

    Crystal Airport: There is, obviously, no airline service to Crystal. It’s a general-aviation reliever airport, designed to keep smaller planes from needing to land at the big airport. According to the website, Flight Aware, it handles an average of 514 flight operations a day. But that mostly includes planes flying through the airspace, not actual takeoff and landings. Most of the traffic at the airport is VFR — visual flight rules — in which the pilot, not the controller, is primarily responsible for keeping aircraft apart.

    Crystal is on the FAA’s list of towers that would likely be closed.

    Flying Cloud: The effect of a tower shutdown is somewhat more pronounced because this is the region’s executive airport, with plenty of corporate jets. Generally, there are two controllers in the tower — one handling take-off and landings and one handling ground traffic. Because there are two parallel runways, the closing of the tower mostly affects the ground operations. Pilots, left to their own devices, could cross a runway where a jet is taking off or landing.

    But that’s unlikely because there are already provisions in place for a closed tower at Flying Cloud (and every other towered airport in Minnesota). When the tower closes for the night, only one runway is “open” to traffic, eliminating the problem.

    Flying Cloud is on the FAA’s list of towers that would likely be closed.

    Saint Paul: The downtown airport isn’t close to what it once was. The National Guard helicopter maintenance facility moved most of its operations a few years ago. The flight school closed after the Mississippi River flooding of a decade ago (there’s still a flight school on the field, but it has nowhere near the traffic the old one did), and there hasn’t been scheduled passengers service in a decade. 3M still has its corporate jets there and there are still a handful of executive jets landing each day. But, like Flying Cloud, changing to closed-tower rules presents few problems, and isn’t going to have any effect at all on airline travelers.

    Those are the only control towers in Minnesota operated with FAA controllers. But there are several “contract towers” that are operated by private firms under contract to the FAA.”

    St. Cloud — Allegiant Air runs a handful of flights a day to the Phoenix area. Could they be affected or delayed if the tower were to be shut down? It’s hard to see how. Back when Northwest Airlines ruled the skies, airline flights made it in and out of uncontrolled airports all the time. It’s not as if it’s every-pilot-for-him/herself. In the absence of a controller, there are radio procedures for keeping an orderly flow of traffic.

    St. Cloud is on the FAA’s list of towers that would likely be closed.

    Duluth – The airport claims 162 flight operations a day, a third of which are general aviation flights and 14% of which are military. United, Delta, and Allegiant (or their subcarriers disguised to look like the big airline partners) all fly out of Duluth and if there were to be a slowdown in the event of a closed tower, Duluth figures to be the place where it might be felt. But the tower there also stands a good chance of being allowed to stay open because it’s an airport of entry for people flying into the U.S. from Canada. (Update: See comments. Duluth is an FAA tower. It is not scheduled to be closed but may not be staffed overnight)

    Anoka/Blaine – This is another reliever airport that actually has a busier schedule than nearby Crystal. It’s almost exclusively general aviation (there are some medical evacuation aircraft based on the field), and the pilots are well schooled in flying in and out of uncontrolled fields.

    Anoka is on the FAA’s list of towers that would likely be closed.

    Rochester – It claims only 112 aviation operations a day, a third of which are commercial. Because of Mayo, it’s popular for corporate jets too. But, like St. Cloud, it’s not a particularly difficult airspace to fly in and out of. (Update: See comments. Rochester is an FAA tower. It is not scheduled to be closed)

    And we know this because busier airports underneath the big MSP airspace don’t have any control towers and traffic comes and goes just fine. These include Lakeville (Airlake), Lake Elmo, and South Saint Paul.

    But there’s much more to the nation’s airspace system than the control towers on which Secretary LaHood focused. The most critical operations in these parts comes out of this non-descript building.

    It’s the FAA’s Minneapolis Center — located in Farmington — and it controls all of the nation’s airline traffic as it passes through (parts of)North and South Dakota, Iowa, Minnesota, Michigan, Nebraska, Wisconsin and a small slice of Kansas and Missouri.

    Whatever delays passengers might experience would actually come from furloughs there, although “optional” services to general aviation pilots would most certainly be sacrificed in favor of keeping the airlines happy. The entire air traffic control system is already designed to keep GA operations out of the way of the airlines.

    In the meantime, it’s good to keep the dire warnings in perspective and require a transportation secretary to explain how closing towers at airports without airline service is going to significantly hamper the airline-traveling public.