FAA delays contract tower closings to June 15

Pilot says FAA ‘plays chicken’ with safety

April 5, 2013

The FAA, faced with proliferating legal challenges to its decision to close 149 contract airport control towers starting April 7, announced that it would delay any tower closings until June 15 while it works to resolve state and local concerns about the shutdowns.

“This has been a complex process and we need to get this right,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood in an April 5 news release. “Safety is our top priority. We will use this additional time to make sure communities and pilots understand the changes at their local airports.”

AOPA President Craig Fuller said the decision “provides the aviation community and the FAA the time it needs to properly assess this proposed budgetary action and we applaud the decision.

“Air traffic control towers provide an added measure of safety and improve efficiency in the airport communities they serve. Years of study and evaluation are spent in the determination that a single tower is warranted and today's decision will ensure that policy makers take time to understand the consequences surrounding the closure of towers. As part of the evaluation, we hope the FAA will also use this time to undertake a comprehensive review of the impact of each tower closure to include mix of operations, overlying airspace, type of instrument procedures, and proximity to metroplex airspace.

“This announcement is welcomed for another reason. Thousands of very dedicated men and women play a vital role in the nation's air transportation system through the work they do in air traffic control towers. Today's decision also recognizes their role and the respect we have for the commitment they make and the job they do every day to ensure we fly in the safest air transportation system in the world.”

The FAA said that approximately 50 airport authorities and other stakeholders had expressed interest in taking on the funding of contract control towers. “This additional time will allow the FAA to help facilitate that transition,” the FAA said, adding that it was consulting with airport operators on “appropriate risk mitigations.”

The agency said it would also use the time “to attempt to resolve multiple legal challenges to the closure decisions”; AOPA has reported on state and local reactions to the decisions.

Airport operators and other governmental units have not been the only parties to oppose the control tower closings ordered as the FAA complies with a sequestration mandate to cut its spending. Ken Paskar, an AOPA member and Airport Support Network volunteer for Westchester County Airport in White Plains, N.Y., filed a petition in late March in the Second Circuit Court of Appeals seeking judicial review of the tower shutdown decision. The Second Circuit covers Connecticut, New York, and Vermont.

“I felt that pilots needed to be represented,” he said, adding that his filing in Second Circuit would become the lead action of the various challenges to the shutdown order.

“I did it for a couple of reasons: because I believe that what the FAA is doing is illegal. Even if wasn’t illegal it’s unsafe,” he said in a phone interview.

Paskar took the action even though Westchester County Airport is not among the list of airports scheduled to lose a control tower.

Paskar said he wants court review because he believes that safety considerations are being infringed by politics as the FAA becomes ensnared in the federal budget dispute. He expects briefs in the case to be filed in several months—meaning that there may be no relief before any resumption of tower closings after June 15.

Sequestration’s effects on air traffic control management support his claim that safety is being compromised in the current political environment, Paskar said.

“That’s what happens when you play chicken. And you know what? You’re playing chicken with people’s lives,” he said.

Dan Namowitz

Dan Namowitz | Aviation Writer

Dan Namowitz is an aviation writer and flight instructor. He has been a pilot since 1985 and an instructor since 1990.