Budget Cuts Could Spell End of FAA Contract Towers
A sizable portion of the FAA’s successful contract-tower program could face $128 million in cuts by January 2013, a casualty of the Congressional Super Committee’s failure to reach any practical bipartisan agreement on deficit reduction, according to Spencer Dickerson, executive director of the American Association of Airport Executives’ Contract Tower Association.
The cuts are part of a swath of automatic cost-saving measures imposed by the Office of Management and Budget. While the proposed savings pale in comparison to the $1.5 trillion goal initially outlined by the Super Committee, the results could hit the aviation industry hard, Dickerson explained. Should the funding cuts take effect, the move would shut down 120 contract towers around the U.S.
The locations of towers threatened with closure have not been made public, but Dickerson says sources have indicated that airports serving primarily business and general aviation are high on the list to be shuttered. “At many GA airports, there is often a complex mix of activity: flight schools, business aviation, military and even crossing-runway [geometry] where a tower provides a key safety element,” Dickerson said. “We think these [kinds of cuts] are short-sighted.”
House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chairman John Mica (R-Fla.) agrees. In a letter to OMB director Jacob Lew, Mica wrote, “While I appreciate…spending cuts are required, I believe this necessarily means that cuts should be focused on inefficient and ineffective programs. The FAA Contract Tower program does not fall into this category.”
According to numbers from the most recent (2003) DOT Inspector General’s report that reviewed safety, cost and operational metrics at all U.S. contract towers, non-federally operated facilities are just as safe as FAA-operated towers (allowing for measurement data comparisons). Contract towers can also operate–on average–for about one-sixth of the total cost of an FAA facility, largely because contract controllers work for considerably less compensation than their FAA counterparts. Contract ATC service providers also staff their facilities with fewer people per shift than the FAA. (Streamlined FAA staffing, however, has raised red flags and has been listed as a contributing factor in a number of accidents and agency embarrassments, including instances last spring when controllers working alone fell asleep on the job.)
Tower closures will not sit well with any of the hundreds of airport managers or sponsors the cuts might affect, especially since most probably expended political capital to help open those towers in the first place. Dickerson’s sources say many wheels are already in motion to convince members of Congress to push back against the proposed cuts. The FAA has declined to comment.
Whether or not the proposed cuts will take effect will become clear next month when the President’s 2013 budget rolls off the presses.