March 19, 2013
By Dave Hirschman
Editor’s note: The FAA on March 22 named the 149 federal contract towers that will begin closing April 7.
She’s served as an air traffic controller aboard a nuclear aircraft carrier and at U.S. military bases, helped manage the openings of two busy general aviation control towers in her native Maryland, and always received glowing performance reviews.
But Mamie Jane “MJ” Ambrose will be out of a job April 8 if the FAA follows through with its plan to close nearly 200 contract towers and furlough controllers in response to “sequester” budget cuts.
“It means I’m out of a job,” said Ambrose. “I’m not going to be doing a job I love, and that I’ve been doing for 11 years.”
Ambrose said she’s deeply concerned about safety when so many contract towers are shut down on the same date. At busy Class D towers such as Frederick, Md., where she works and sprawling population centers like Los Angeles, where many outlying towers are scheduled to close, the implications could be far reaching for pilots and controllers alike.
“When we turn out the lights and walk out, are pilots in this area going to go to BWI (Baltimore/Washington International Airport) or Dulles (International Airport)?” said Ambrose. “They aren’t going to be able to accommodate them. What about student pilots who need to fly to tower-controlled airports?”
This year’s sequester budget cuts reduce the FAA budget by 5 percent—and the contract tower program is taking the brunt with a 75-percent cut. For furloughed tower controllers like Ambrose, there’s no possibility of transferring to another facility because all the jobs are being eliminated at a stroke.
“I love what I do, and I get to work with some wonderful people,” said Ambrose, a single parent with a 5-year-old daughter. “Many of them are veterans. All of us are in the same situation.”
The sequester cuts focus on GA airports by design. The Transportation Department and FAA have purposely avoided reductions at airline hubs out of concern that they would disrupt passenger airline travel.
But the entire air traffic system is tightly interwoven, and FAA center and approach controllers are likely to be severely tested when responsibilities shouldered by hundreds of contract controllers suddenly shift to them.
Also, the sequester is a 10-year series of cuts, so the impact is likely to be felt more broadly as time goes on.
Melissa Rudinger, AOPA senior vice president for government affairs, said the FAA has been “less than transparent” in targeting contract towers for closure, and she said cuts can be made in areas that won’t compromise flight safety.
“One of the most obvious is the FAAST [FAA Safety Team] program,” she said. “Other organizations can carry out the safety mission...at much lower cost.”
Allowing active flight instructors to renew their certificates online, and the joint AOPA/EAA petition for pilots to exercise recreational privileges without third class medicals are other areas of potential FAA savings.
“The third class medical is mostly a paperwork exercise,” Rudinger said. “We can enhance safety by requiring pilots to evaluate their health through online education courses.”
Rudinger urged Congress and the Obama administration to come to a long-term agreement that addresses FAA spending in a thoughtful way that doesn’t jeopardize flight safety, or certification of new aircraft and avionics.
“Our industry can’t sustain these kinds of cuts,” she said.
AOPA Pilot Editor at Large Dave Hirschman joined AOPA in 2008. He has an airline transport pilot certificate and instrument and multiengine flight instructor certificates. Dave flies vintage, historical, and Experimental airplanes and specializes in tailwheel and aerobatic instruction.
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