FAA: 149 Airport Towers To Close

 - March 22, 2013, 3:45 PM
The tower at Frederick Municipal Airport in western Maryland is one of the contract towers on the FAA's closure list. The tower was built with $5.3 million in federal stimulus money and occasionally handles Marine Corps presidential helicopters if the weather at nearby Camp David is bad. (Photo: Bill Carey)

The FAA announced today that 149 federal contract towers will close beginning April 7 as part of the agency’s plan to trim its budget by $637 million in Fiscal Year 2013 under sequestration. Two weeks ago, the FAA released a list of 238 towers potentially facing closure.

Affected facilities will be shut down over a four-week phased plan, the agency said. “We will work with the airports and the operators to ensure the procedures are in place to maintain the high level of safety at non-towered airports,” said FAA Administrator Michael Huerta.

In all, just 40 contract towers on the potential closure list were spared–24 will continue to be federally funded because closure “would have a negative impact on the national interest,” while 16 will be kept afloat by their local communities, which have elected to “assume the cost of continued, on-site air traffic control services at their airport.”

The fate of 49 FAA-staffed facilities also on the potential closure list hinges on negotiations with controllers union Natca, an FAA spokeswoman told AIN. “That could take up to 12 months, based on the contract,” she added.

According to the FAA, national interest considerations included “significant threats to national security as determined by the FAA in consultation with the Department of Defense or the Department of Homeland Security; significant, adverse economic impact that is beyond the impact on a local community; significant impact on multi-state transportation, communication or banking/financial networks; and the extent to which an airport currently served by a contract tower is a critical diversionary airport to a large hub.”

Two of the towers that are closing–at Albert Whitted in St. Petersburg, Fla., and Frederick (Md.) Municipal Airport–are essentially brand new and were built with the help of federal stimulus and earmark money: $3.1 million and $5.3 million, respectively. Another brand-new tower at Florida’s Opa-locka Executive Airport, constructed with $1.9 million in stimulus funding, will remain open.

Towers at two airports that host the largest fly-ins in the U.S. are also slated to close: Lakeland (Fla.) Linder Regional Airport and Wittman Regional Airport in Oshkosh, Wis. Sun ’n Fun Fly-in organizers said today that Lakeland Airport will have certified air traffic controllers to handle arrivals and departures during this year’s event, which will be held from April 8 to 15.

Other notable tower closures include those at Igor I. Sikorsky Memorial in Bridgeport, Conn.; San Diego (Calif.) Brown Field; Atlanta Cobb County-McCollum Field; Chicago Waukegan; New Bedford (Mass.) Regional; Trenton Mercer in New Jersey; Flight Options’ home base at Cuyahoga County in Cleveland, Ohio; and Dallas Executive.

“We heard from communities across the country about the importance of their towers and these were very tough decisions,” said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. “Unfortunately we are faced with a series of difficult choices that we have to make to reach the required cuts under sequestration.”

Aviation Groups React

Aviation alphabet groups reacted quickly to today’s announcement and expressed their displeasure over the tower closings. Natca “denounced” the FAA’s action, while NBAA said it is “frustrated” by the move.

“The closure of these air traffic control towers will reduce the overall margin of safety of our entire aviation system,” said Natca president Paul Rinaldi. “Ultimately, the partisan posturing in Washington that led to sequestration is the reason for today’s decision and its destructive effects on aviation. The FAA made a bad situation worse by not using a well-thought-out process for evaluating the value of air traffic control towers before ordering their closure. Even if there was a good way to do this, the mandated budget cuts under sequestration have forced the FAA to prioritize its decision based on expediency rather than safety and efficiency.”

NBAA, meanwhile, was disappointed that so many facilities ended up on the chopping block. “Our desire has been to work with the FAA to limit the impact from sequestration, and keep as many control towers and facilities open as possible,” said NBAA president and CEO Ed Bolen. NBAA representatives held “numerous” face-to-face meetings with top FAA officials to provide options, as well as offer suggestions to help mitigate the impact on operations, in the event that tower closures became a reality.

“While it appears FAA officials took some of our concerns into account–40 towers originally slated for closure will now remain open–we are frustrated that the FAA has nevertheless chosen to move ahead with the closure of 149 facilities targeted in its original sequester-response plan,” Bolen said. “At the same time, we recognize it’s critically important that we continue to communicate with agency officials to ensure the closures that will happen are as workable as possible for [business aircraft operators]. We will continue working with the FAA with that objective in view.”


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