When the FAA was looking for ways to slash expenditures by more than $600 million in Fiscal Year 2013 as part of “sequestration” cuts mandated by the U.S. Congress last spring, part of the plans was a shutdown of 149 low-activity contract control towers. After an outcry from nearly a dozen aviation organizations, the FAA scrapped that proposal after Congress gave the agency the flexibility to move $253 million in unobligated funds from the Airport Improvement Program to the operations account. Without that action, the towers were scheduled to close by June 15, a date set after the FAA abandoned an earlier plan for phased closings in April and May.
The Federal Contract Tower (FCT) program has provided air traffic control services at low-activity, visual flight rules towers since 1982. Over the ensuing years, the FCT program came under fire from various sources, including the National Air Traffic Controllers Association and some in Congress, amidst charges the contract towers are neither as cost effective nor as safe as FAA-staffed towers. While the Department of Transportation’s inspector general found that the FCT program provides cost-effective services that are comparable to the quality and safety of FAA-operated towers, perhaps it is time to look in another direction when it comes to providing ATC services at small airports.
Dr. David Byers, who is a college professor and airport consultant, is proposing a Synthetic Air Traffic Advisory System (Satas) that uses a low-cost primary radar to detect aircraft, a secondary surveillance system based on multilateration, software to process aircraft data and develop traffic advisories, and a radio system to broadcast those advisories to nearby planes. He told AOPA that as an automated advisory service, Satas would not be allowed to give directions to aircraft; it would simply advise pilots of nearby traffic, enhancing their ability to see and avoid.
While the contract towers were spared this time, Byers suspects many of those towers currently serving airports around the country will be empty sooner than later. “I feel I’ve got a window of about two years,” he said. “That’s when the towers are going to really start shutting down.”