Some Contract Towers Still at Risk

 - June 18, 2012, 4:00 PM
Felts Airport sits just east of the busy Spokane/Fairchild AFB Class C

Earlier this year, the biggest threat to airports included in the FAA’s Contract Tower Program seemed to be program-cut plans announced just before the passage of the FAA Reauthorization in February. According to the president of Melbourne, Fla.-based Quadrex, Dr. Dave Byers, other airports could again find their contract towers at risk for closure when the FAA issues a long-overdue update to its cost/benefit analysis structure. 

Because reduced airport traffic often translates into reduced revenues, some airport sponsors worry they could be forced to accept more of the financial burden for control tower operating expenses at their airport at a time when they are least able to afford them. Making things shakier is the agency’s cost/benefit analysis itself. 

“That’s because FAA Airport Planning Division economists make value decisions about whether a tower should exist or not and who pays how much to support it on a black-and-white, numbers-only basis,” said Byers. He believes there are often “extenuating circumstances that relate to the indirect benefits of a tower that might not be apparent in the math alone. When you’ve seen one airport, you’ve seen one airport.” Quadrex’s mission is to supply airports with the valuable economic data needed to check any FAA cuts.

Spokane, Washington’s Felts Field (SFF), currently hovering around 60,000 operations annually, may not seem that important to some. But the airport’s director of marketing, Todd Woodard, who also handles marketing at nearby Spokane International Airport (GEG), points out that Felts sits right on the eastern edge of the Spokane Class C airspace that also encompasses Fairchild AFB. Woodard said a more expensive control tower could translate into quite a financial hardship for tenants. “Our tenants believe it’s a valuable asset to Felts Field. We have a large helicopter air ambulance service here, as well as a helicopter flight training school and a nearby seaplane base. This is a non-partisan safety and economic development issue for us.” 

Byers identified areas where the Spokane analysts might have missed critical portions of their airport’s traffic count in order to be ready for the inevitable FAA cost questions. “For instance, Byers asked if we counted the seaplanes in the river that runs adjacent to the airport (we hadn’t),” Woodard said. 

The agency told Woodard it costs $450,000 annually to run the Felts tower. “If the new formula said we might need to begin covering even 15 percent of that cost, the number could represent 10 percent of our annual airport budget,” said Woodard, noting that this expense could demand cuts in other airport operations to balance the budget.