President's Position: Choosing wisely

Protecting the finest air transportation system in the world

June 1, 2013

Craig FullerOnly a few weeks ago, legislation to provide the FAA with budget flexibility passed the Senate unanimously and the House of Representatives by a huge margin. The changes were designed to end air traffic controller furloughs and give the FAA monies to evaluate and keep open needed towers.

At a time when it is hard to forge broad-based consensus, the outcry over FAA budget reductions created a remarkable coming together in Washington, D.C. Congressional leaders deserve our thanks for getting involved and finding what we can only hope is a lasting resolution. As the legislation made its way through Congress, headlines followed the action. The White House chief of staff described the legislation as a “Band-Aid approach,” while the chairman of the National Republican Committee called it a huge defeat for the Obama administration.

Regardless of where you may fall within the range of these characterizations, I hope you agree that the air transportation system is too important to place in the hands of those who view it as a political football.

So, what happened? In our view, since sequestration took effect the FAA has been driven by budget officials to make some questionable decisions, announcing that it would cut spending by closing 149 air traffic control towers and furloughing thousands of employees. The agency said it had no good options because of the way the law was written.

Regardless of how much, or little, flexibility the FAA had initially, the agency now has the opportunity to make different—and we hope wiser—choices about where and how to cut spending.

In choosing which towers to close, the FAA selected contract towers at GA airports. But the agency did little or no analysis to determine whether the towers were providing a safety benefit. Of course, GA aircraft can operate without towers—we do it safely all the time. But towers can be of enormous benefit, especially at airports with a mix of aircraft with different capabilities, where the overlying airspace is especially complex or busy, where traffic volume is high, or where weather or terrain complicates operations. The safety benefits of having a tower are clear—and that’s why towers are established at some airports in the first place.

The decision to open a tower isn’t made lightly. There are studies, analysis, and debate. When so much thought goes into establishing a tower, shouldn’t just as much care be taken before closing one? But that is decidedly not what happened before the FAA announced the closures. The importance of these facilities can be seen in the swift action taken by dozens of communities to save their control towers. Airport sponsors, local taxpayers, airport users, and area businesses all pitched in to find money to keep some towers open.

The fact that communities were forced into this position suggests a desire among some in government to push the cost of our national air transportation system out of Washington, D.C., and onto the backs of local organizations and users. It is a policy shift being pursued without the discussion and debate these issues deserve. The decision to withdraw federal funding for contract towers inevitably would have created local fees and charges aimed directly at the GA community—a course with long-term consequences. That’s why we immediately acted to oppose the tower closure proposal.

The FAA must make well-informed, thoughtful choices when it comes to which towers to preserve and which to shutter. The agency should consider all the relevant circumstances and get input from the user community before taking action. The same is true of furloughing our nation’s air traffic controllers—it’s a move that should not be undertaken without extreme care for the consequences.

Thanks to the action of Congress, the FAA now has the flexibility to make its own choices when it comes to finding the most rational, reasonable ways to save money. How the FAA uses this power will set the tone for future decisions. If no action is taken to end sequestration, the FAA and other government agencies will face another round of mandatory cuts in October, and we can expect that next round to be at least as painful as this one.

The power to choose comes with the responsibility to make the most of those choices. Time will tell whether the FAA can return to a path acceptable to general aviation. In the meantime, I believe a debate should and will grow about just what is driving certain decision makers when it comes to general aviation and our nation’s air transportation system. As it does, all of us at AOPA will remain vigilant in our efforts to deny policy makers the chance to play politics with the finest air transportation system in the world.

AOPA President Craig Fuller is an active general aviation pilot. He owns an Aviat Husky. Email craig@aopa.org.