AOPA points to FAA’s flawed process to close control towers (13-2-010)

Court filing cites safety, cost concerns

May 7, 2013

Frederick, MD—The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) in a court filing Monday called the Federal Aviation Administration’s decision to close 149 contract control towers nationwide, “arbitrary, capricious, and fundamentally flawed, leaving the safety and efficiency consequences largely unknown.”

In an amicus curiae brief filed as part of a federal lawsuit against the FAA by municipalities where control towers at airports are slated to be closed, AOPA argued that the FAA ignored its own safety guidelines.

The decision to close certain towers, AOPA stated, was, “based solely on the number of operations conducted at the airport and how that number affects the traveling public. The FAA’s application of this singular standard fails to take into account the many considerations given to establishing and maintaining each of these towers.”

In its court brief, AOPA argued that while not every contract tower may be necessary in today’s airspace environment, the FAA, in its decision to close certain control towers, failed to consider important safety factors.

Specifically, AOPA said that the FAA failed to consider, “the management of (aircraft) approaching, landing, and departing the airport, the access to the airport, any accident and incident avoidance measures on and in the vicinity of the airport, the local and national impact on traffic diverted to other airports, the public’s health and welfare, the public interests, and environmental impact changes.”

The FAA, AOPA argued in its filing with the 9th U.S. Circuit Court, ignored primary safety concerns in favor of expedient sequestration cuts.

“The FAA belatedly drafted a document purporting to evaluate the safety implications of its decision to close a significant number of contract towers,” AOPA stated. “The FAA gave little or no consideration to hearing from the users of these airports, most notably the pilots, as to the impacts that may be felt.”

Additionally, the brief notes that, “AOPA’s members are also concerned with the cost of access to the nation’s airspace and FAA’s services, and how such cost may be impacted by the continuation or closing of a contract tower, recognizing that costs to maintain the tower in the absence of government funding will be passed on to the individual pilots and operators.

“AOPA is further interested in preserving the safe and efficient management of an integrated transportation system and the Federal government’s role developing and maintaining that system.”

The AOPA brief also states that the FAA “appears totally unmindful” of the National Transportation Safety Board’s recent decision to make general aviation safety a top priority.

“While the NTSB intends to work toward improving general aviation safety,” AOPA’s brief says, “the FAA has pushed aside any enhancements to safety provided by the contract towers at these general aviation airports.”

Craig Fuller, AOPA’s president and CEO, said, “The logic, or lack of logic, that was used to select the towers that would be closed is difficult to understand. It seems that little consideration was given to how these airports operate, what sort of airspace they sit in and what role individual towers play to keep flying safe. The same care that was taken to justify the existence of these towers should be taken if there is a perceived need to close them.”

In April the FAA announced that it would close 149 of its 251 contract control towers as means of achieving cuts required by a spending sequestration measure passed by Congress and backed by the White House.

Contract towers generally serve general aviation airports, and federal audits have shown that they are among the FAA’s most efficient programs when measured by cost and safety. It remains unclear why the FAA, in choosing to make its sequestration cuts, elected to cut 60 percent of its most cost-effective program.

While the FAA initially planned to begin closing those towers last month, legal challenges forced the Department of Transportation to postpone the closing date to June 15.

There are about 500 control towers in the nation’s air traffic control system. In addition to 251 contract towers, which are operated for the FAA by private companies, the FAA itself operates more than 250 control towers and air traffic control facilities.

The FAA recently announced that it would furlough air traffic controllers in its facilities as part of sequestration.

But when it did so, the resulting airline delays—and passenger complaints—prompted Congress to quickly pass legislation that gave the FAA funding flexibility to keep the towers and control facilities fully staffed.

It is not yet clear how the FAA will use that new flexibility, or whether it will also prevent the closing of contract towers.

Furthermore, that funding relief is only available until Sept. 30—the end of federal fiscal year 2013. By law the sequestration spending cuts are set to continue for 10 years.

A number of municipalities and at least one individual have taken the FAA to court over the cutbacks. A June 5 hearing for the case is scheduled in Pasadena, Calif.

Since 1939, AOPA has protected the freedom to fly for thousands of pilots, aircraft owners and aviation enthusiasts. With a membership base of nearly 400,000, AOPA is the largest aviation association in the world. With representatives based in Frederick, M.D., Washington, D.C., and seven regions across the United States, AOPA provides member services that range from advocacy at the federal, state, and local levels to legal services, flight planning products, safety programs and award-winning media products. To learn more, visit www.aopa.org.

- AOPA -
13-2-010