The “overriding” principle the Federal Aviation Administration is following in carrying out mandated U.S. government budget cuts is to cause “the minimal impact to the maximum number of travelers,” Administrator Michael Huerta said Wednesday. That approach means that smaller airports serving GA, business and regional airline traffic will bear the brunt of pending ATC tower closures.
“That is not how we look at it, but that is certainly the effect that it has,” Huerta acknowledged during a question-and-answer session at the American Association of Airport Executives (AAAE) aviation forecast and policy summit in Washington, D.C. “What that says is we have to focus on our lowest-activity facilities as the area where we could have a cost benefit, if you want to call it that, but at the same time inconveniencing a relatively small number of people.”
The FAA must cut $637 million from its budget in the seven months remaining in Fiscal Year 2013 to comply with the “sequester” automatic budget cuts that started on March 1. In addition to requiring most of its 47,000 employees to take unpaid leave days, or furlough days, Huerta said the agency is considering closing “a large number” of the 238 ATC towers with fewer than 150,000 total flight operations and less than 10,000 commercial flight operations per year. The list includes 195 contract towers and 43 FAA-staffed towers, according to the U.S. Contract Tower Association. (According to news reports, the FAA has informed tower operators that it will close 189 facilities.) The FAA has also said that it will eliminate midnight shifts at more than 60 towers.
Huerta explained that sequestration requires the FAA to apply cuts equally across programs, budgets and accounts. The agency has four distinct funding sources: operations, facilities and equipment, research and airports. The Airport Improvement Program, which provides grants for airport development, is exempt from sequestration, leaving just three funding sources to cut in the compressed time frame of the fiscal year.
The FAA has instituted a hiring freeze and will reduce employee travel and adjust contracts. “The resulting increment is the amount that I have to obtain through furloughs,” Huerta said. “On a go-ahead basis, the other thing that’s important to understand is that the sequester is designed as a 10-year program. Having entered the sequester, in the absence of any specific action to unwind it, we have to assume the program is with us for 10 years. We also need to consider the impacts and the actions that we take in 2013, and how they set us up for 2014 because we would, at that time, have to take a further reduction.”
Huerta said the ATC towers that have been targeted for closure represent less than 3 percent of operations and less than 1 percent of travelers overall. “That’s a relatively small percent,” he said. “The bottom line is–these are all terrible choices. This is not the way to go about a thoughtful reassessment of how we fund our transportation system.”
In another presentation at the AAAE conference, Steve Brown, NBAA chief operating officer, said the FAA and aircraft operators will meet Friday to discuss the cuts. Brown said the NBAA has “proposed objective criteria to FAA to evaluate facility closures.”