Safety Risks Uncharted For Tower Closings
April 1, 2013
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  • By John Croft

    In the dark of night last February, the pilot of a single-engine light aircraft skidded to a stop on the main runway at the Salisbury-Wicomico County Airport after his gear collapsed on landing. The pilot got out with the aircraft still on the runway, shut off the lights and walked to a nearby facility for help.

    An incident that would have qualified as an inconvenience at most small general aviation (GA) airports, in this case could have been disastrous in the rural town 90 mi. east of Washington. Along with general aviation and military operations, Salisbury’s control tower (above) handles regional airline flights.

    “We knew something wasn’t right because [the pilot] never called ‘clear of the runway,’” says Bill Penna, air traffic manager at the airport, one of two controllers on duty that night. “We had a US Airways Express Dash 8 that called in ready for takeoff to Philadelphia on the same runway, and we said, ‘Something’s not right. Just hold everything and we’re going to [check] the runway with our trucks.’ The ground support guy drove out to look and there was an airplane on the runway. [So] US Airways was delayed.”

    The keen intuition of former military controllers like Penna could disappear at a large number of U.S. airports this spring as the FAA halts funding for 149 of the 251 “contract” towers—those staffed by civilian controllers—starting April 7.

    Behind the action is the agency’s need to trim $637 million from its $15 billion fiscal 2013 spending plan due to mandatory cuts that went into effect March 1 under a federal deficit reduction measure known as sequestration. A note to controllers from the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, which represents federal as well as civilian employees in this field, told them that expected savings from the closings will be $32.8 million this fiscal year. The FAA says it will cut funding for 24 towers on April 7, another 46 by April 21 and the remaining 79, including Salisbury, on May 5.

    “While we regret the need to cease FAA funding of these towers, we have worked to ensure that the airport environment remains safe as we make the transition,” says the safety agency in guidance to airports published on March 27.

    Tower managers at two airports that Aviation Week visited on March 26 doubted the FAA’s claim, saying that there had been no discussions at their level about the relative merit of the closures from a safety standpoint, and no coordination or processes offered to begin an orderly shutdown.

    “We followed a massive checklist to open this tower in 1999,” says Penna. “It took months to get everything right, including letters of agreement with other facilities and two meetings with local pilots. Now we’re not doing anything. There’s no checklist.”

    In its March 27 letter, the FAA says it has “worked to ensure that the airport environment remains safe as we make the transition” and that “many air carriers operate at non-towered airports today and use non-towered airports as diversion airports.”

    A key transition problem with airports such as Salisbury and Martin State, a general aviation and Maryland Air National Guard (ANG) airport 15 nm north of the Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, will be the high number of GA operations taking place. The ANG flies A-10 Thunderbolts and C-27J Spartans from the GA airport, which also is home to several corporate flight departments, including Black & Decker and Lockheed Martin.

    “If you switch to CTAF [common traffic advisory frequency], the most dangerous aspect is military aircraft mixing with general aviation,” said a controller on duty at Martin State March 26. “We have A-10s coming into the initial approach at 280-300 kt. and we have gyrocopters and vintage aircraft flying at 60-70 kt. on final.” That facility’s tower is set to close April 21.

    Similar issues with commercial aircraft occur at Salisbury. “A lot of what we do here is train pilots,” says Penna. “If you take me out of the equation, that commercial pilot has to anticipate what that knucklehead who is just learning how to fly is going to do. He could be lining up on the wrong runway or cutting in front of a Dash 8 on final approach.”

    Administrators of the contract tower program see the FAA’s actions as political posturing to force Congress to reverse the mandatory sequestration cuts. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that if you close 149 towers there are going to be safety problems,” says Spencer Dickerson, president of the American Association of Airport Executives. That organization has managed the contract tower program for the FAA since its launch 30 years ago, with Dickerson involved throughout.

    “In 30 years, we have closed three contract towers,” says Dickerson. “Now we’re closing 149 in one month. The whole thing is nonsensical. Aviation safety should not be politicized.”

    Cutting contract towers also appears political in light of a 2012 Transportation Department Inspector General’s report that concluded contract towers offer the same services as federal facilities but at a lower cost and “significantly lower number and rate of safety incidents.”

    The FAA in a March 5 letter to airports stated that it would eliminate funding for 189 contract towers—those at locations with fewer than 150,000 total operations per year and fewer than 10,000 commercial operations per year, unless the facility could demonstrate a “negative impact to the national interest” from the closure. National interest exemptions were considered for key reliever airports for large hubs, facilities with national security importance or where closure could cause widespread economic impact. Salisbury reported 6,700 commercial operations in 2012 out of a total of 50,000. Commercial operations include US Airways Express’s average of 13 arrivals or departures per day and FedEx’s six Cessna Caravans operating daily. US Airways also performs line and heavy maintenance on the Bombardier Dash 8s at the airport.

    Dickerson says the FAA received more than 1,000 submissions from people seeking exemptions for their airports. The agency eventually selected 24 of those facilities for continued funding due to “national interests” and an additional 16 that would stay open due to congressional set-asides. “The question is, did they do a safety review—a process that takes months?” asks Dickerson. “We don’t have any indication they did any of that. A lot of people are going to sue the FAA over this.”

    The Spokane (Wash.) Airport Board did just that, filing a lawsuit on March 25 that asks a federal appeals court to review the FAA’s decision to deny the board’s request for an exemption to keep the contract tower funded at Felts Airfield, a facility it owns and operates.

    “From our perspective, the closures are firm unless the airport operator obtains the funding to stay open locally, or unless there are court orders or other actions to stay the closures,” the FAA tells Aviation Week.

    Dickerson says it is possible that local and state funding could rescue some towers. If private funding exists, the FAA has an option for towers to be converted to “non-federal” status, tailoring operational hours and staffing to available budgets and possibly keeping government-owned equipment in place. If no funding surfaces, the agency says it will begin “disconnecting and removing” equipment 90 days after shutdown.

    The balkanization of the air traffic network is counter to the action wrought in the 1970s and 1980s, when the FAA brought a large number of non-federal towers back under its control in order to standardize operations, says Dickerson.

    If the towers do close, Dickerson says, 750-1,000 controllers will lose their jobs; 75-80% of that group are veterans who learned their craft in the U.S. military. “Veterans are getting thrown out on the street,” he says.

    Penna points out that most controllers are well above the 31-year-old maximum age limit for entering into FAA controller training. He jokes that he is not sure what WalMart he’ll be working at come May 5.

    Up until that time, he and his staff will stay at their stations. “It’s like the band continuing to play as the Titanic went down,” says controller John Snider, an ex-military controller who has worked with Penna at Salisbury for 17 years. “Everyone is going to get fantastic service right up until we close.”