FAA delays closing of airport towers

Regulators need more time to deal with legal challenges

The Associated PressApril 5, 2013 

— The closings of control towers at 149 small airports, set to begin this weekend because of government-wide spending cuts, are being delayed until mid-June, federal regulators announced Friday.

The Federal Aviation Administration said it needs more time to deal with legal challenges to the closures.

The news is welcome for Merced County's Castle Airport in Atwater, which is on that list of airports with towers to be closed.

"Merced's Castle Airport is important, not just to our valley economy but also to disaster assistance and military readiness," said Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, in a statement. "The FAA heeded our calls that they put the brakes on tower closures and reevaluate their ill-advised decision. Their original announcement goes completely against the idea of shared sacrifice, and puts the entire burden on communities like Merced."

Costa added, "We have time now to make sure that the administration uses all of the discretion it was granted under sequestration to keep our skies safe. There is a better way, and I'm working with my colleagues to make sure the administration finds it."

Decision applauded

Mark Hendrickson, director of commerce, aviation and economic development for Merced County, said Friday's announcement is a step in the right direction.

"It's a short-term reprieve because it will allow us more time to explore options," Hendrickson said, adding that he's cautiously optimistic.

"We need to keep it in perspective," he said. "While there's still considerable work to do, it is our hope that a solution can be found to protect this regional asset."

Merced Mayor Stan Thurston, president of Gemini Flight Support, said the delay gives officials "a few more weeks of sleep."

But there's plenty of work to do, Thurston said. "We have to prepare for alternatives," he said. "We can't just sit back and wait for the first of June and then huddle."

Thurston said alternatives might include keeping the tower open on weekdays or implementing shorter schedules. But closing the tower, he fears, may become a permanent, irreversible decision.

"If this tower ever closes, it will never reopen again because we'll never establish the need," Thurston said. "I would say we won a small battle. It's not a victory yet, until they quit trying to close it."

About 50 airport authorities and other "stakeholders" have indicated they want to fund the operations of the towers rather than see them shut down, and more time will be needed to work out those plans, the agency said in a statement.

The first 24 tower closures were scheduled to begin Sunday, with the rest coming over the next few weeks. Obama administration officials have said the closures are necessary to accomplish automatic spending cuts required by Congress.

Despite the delay, the FAA said it will stop funding all 149 airport towers, which are operated by private contractors, on June 15. Under the new schedule, the closures will be implemented at once, rather than a gradual phase-in as had been planned.

Airport operators in several states, including Florida, Illinois and Washington, and the U.S. Contract Tower Association, which represents the companies that operate contract towers, have filed lawsuits with the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Washington seeking to halt the closures.

The lawsuits contend that the closures violated a federal law meant to ensure major changes at airports do not erode safety, and unfairly targeted the program for an outsized share of the more than $600 million the agency is required to trim from its budget by the end of September.

"The administration has decided to make tower closures the poster child of sequestration (automatic spending cuts)," said the group's director, J. Spencer Dickerson. "We believe there are other ways they could have skinned this cat."

Federal officials have insisted that the closures wouldn't affect safety.

The FAA began paying contractors to staff and operate towers at a handful of small airports after President Ronald Reagan fired striking air traffic controllers in 1981. Today, there are 251 towers operated by private contractors at airports across the country at an average annual cost of more than $500,000 each.

Cost-benefit analysis

In 1990, the FAA developed a complicated cost- benefit methodology for the tower program that relies on accident data from 1983 to 1986 to determine how many accidents would be averted and lives saved if an airport had controllers working onsite. The safety data have never been updated, despite marked improvements in accident rates.

In 1983, there were 10.7 accidents for every 100,000 departures involving small planes, business jets and other nonairline flights in the United States, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. By 2011, the latest year for which figures are available, that rate had dropped to 6.5 accidents per 100,000 departures. The commercial airline accident rate also has dropped, and fatalities have declined even more.

"None of the formulas have been updated since 1990, despite a very significant change in the aviation operating environment and the general aviation and commercial accident rates," the FAA said in a statement in response to questions from The Associated Press. "The FAA is in the process of updating this policy."

Of the nation's 5,000 public airports, only about 10 percent have control towers. Those without towers generally have relatively few flights, and pilots coordinate takeoffs and landings among themselves.

Airport towers are prized by local communities as economic boosters, particularly in rural areas. Airlines are sometimes reluctant to schedule flights to airports where there are no on-site air traffic controllers.

Sun-Star reporter Ramona Giwargis contributed to this report.

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