The Tower is Now Closed

February 26, 2013 by Bruce Landsberg

control towerThe federal government’s financial meltdown is starting. That storm has been brewing for over a year, but not being especially adept at politics, I’d rather measure the impacts on the FAA in an operational sense and get beyond what some call political theater.

Let’s be honest—there are a number of airports around the country that really don’t need a tower. We’ve all flown into them where it’s just you, the tower controller, and maybe one or a few other aircraft having a very nice discussion. Often it’s about commercial air service where a small community has a few flights a day and not much else. We’ve also been to airports that were literally buzzing with GA traffic but no tower because it doesn’t meet the non-commercial threshold. Politics, or a higher standard of safety?

In some cases the traffic density has fallen considerably from when the tower was justified. Should hours of operation be scaled back or eliminated? How about the mid-shifts where one or two controllers pull all-nighters to service a couple of cargo aircraft, often arriving around the same time?

When the Secretary of Transportation made his impassioned plea to preserve tower services, were there any questions asking Mr. LaHood, “Sir, in the case of XXX airport which you just cited, how many aircraft movements are there between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.?”

AOPA is often asked by reporters about how one can possibly operate aircraft at non-towered airports. They are usually surprised to learn that there is a complete system that works very well. When Class D reverts to Class E as the tower closes, there is also an effective transition procedure.

Safety at any price is unaffordable. There’s reasonable safety, and occasionally the safety card is played when on an operational basis, it can’t really be justified. The Supreme Court has said that safe is not the equivalent of risk-free (Industrial Union Department, AFL-CIO v. American Petroleum Institute, decided in 1980). User fees are another issue, and the more unnecessary costs that are baked into the system, the stronger that pressure.

Nobody wants his ox gored, but might there be parts of the ox that might be expendable? In this fiscal environment, operational priorities need to be set and not political ones.

What do you think?

Towered or not, America’s airports are the backbone of our aviation infrastructure. Your support to the AOPA Foundation helps in the fight to keep these airports open and accessible. Consider showing your support through a tax-deductible donation to the Foundation today.

Bruce Landsberg
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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  • Herb Ludgewait

    Outstanding article. Although many towers are neccesary and we have some great ATC people, many are the product of FAA empire building and a waste of money(taxes) A logical operational safety approach such as yours will not be welcomed by the politicians and beurocrats, but is the only sane way to go. In 41 years of flying, most of my traffic conflicts have been at towered airports.

  • S.S. McDonald

    Useless control towers to eliminate in Florida & Georgia: Lake City, Bartow, Ocala, Naples, Boca Raton, Ormond Beach, St. Augustine. Cecil Field, New Smyrna Beach, North Perry, Leesburg, Panama City, Albert Whitted and Stuart. In Georgia: Valdosta, Albany & Athens. Closing these look-at-me-I’m-a-big-time-airport-now towers would help reduce the deficit.

  • http://none Richard B Smith

    I work at a Southern California tower scheduled to be closed on April 1. The airshow for April 6 is in jeopardy, as the Insurance carrier will not cover the show without a huge increase in premium, and the military will not be participating. We have five flight schools here, including a helicopter operation. The wind has been squirelly the last few weeks, and just determining the active runway has been sporty.Our ASOS calls the sky clear, when it is cloudy, and yep, just the opposite when it is not. While I suppose we are unneccesary 50% of the time, the weekends are brutal. I am a private pilot myself, and sometimes I wonder if some pilots should even be flying. I like my job, but if the government wants me to go on unemployment insurance, I shall. Good Luck out there, and the first mid-air after the towers close is on Congress.

  • Michael Stanton-Hicks

    Right on! Excelent perspective.

  • http://AOPAemail J.H.Rustige

    I have to agree with S.S.McDonald and add Punta Gorda, Fl. to his list.
    There are many airports that have towers that are not needed, however I think the reason for them may be the fault of a few pilots.

    I have seen pilots not call their intentions, not give their location and others that tie up the airwaves with unnecesary chatter.

    It’s now up to all pilots to make it work and follow the guide lines for safety.

  • G mcnamara

    Ral is Avery important tower with jet,light sport,helecopter and a lot of trainig
    Going on and is very close to many other airports.

  • http://Blog.aopa Bob O’Neill

    Wholesale close and panic makes no sense. Yes, some towers can be closed with little impact on safety. However decisions need to include number of planes based and daily flight operations. Limited daily hours covering peek periods, urban vs suburban vs rural, number of IFR departures and arrivals, nearby class B or class C airports, area traffic density etc, etc etc all need to be considered for safety of flight and risk to life and property on the surrounding non-flying public. Instead our coward congress has simly applied the meat cleaver with no rhime or reason to a system that isn’t broken. Doesn’t the US Constitution form a republican government to serve it’s citizens through compromise rather than non thinking party lines that harm the people?

  • Don Schultz

    I am a retired air traffic controller. I have worked in busy as well as not busy facilities and find that most of them are overstaffed, overpaid, and work many hours that are not necessary.

    I now live in eastern TN and live within 5 miles of an airport that is equipped with a tower, a radar room, and very little traffic. I fly here privately and sometimes listen in on the control facility and hear nothing. Most of the time, the positions are combined so one person is working and the rest of the staff is taking a break.

  • Maynard Keppler

    Many towers were started because some politician/VIP wanted one at his/her home airport, regardless of low traffic. Let’s start with those.

    This whole scare is so typical. Anytime government growth is rolled back, they start with the items we need the most instead of the waste areas. Locally, it is usually garbage collection, parks and school activities. It’s fraud. Bring on the sequester (a term designed to confuse people). Then hold your representatives feet to the fire to cut waste instead of needed services.

  • http://none Richard B Smith

    Those are FAA towers, guaranteed. I worked for 26 ears in the FAA, and yes, most FAA towers are overstaffed. If I had 4 hours time on position at the end of an 8 hour day, I felt “overworked.” Out here in Contractor Land, where I am now, I don’t get a break off position (acccording to the position log) and eat my meals on position. I have to time my bathroom breaks judiciously, and still I get calls while I am in the can. Vacation time means almost certain overtime for somebody else because of low staffing. This is the best deal the government has, low overhead combined with professionalism. Of course, I work in Southern California, the busiest airspace in the world. Maybe Tennessee is different….

  • Michael R. Denziger

    Did you know the FAA has a movie studio?

    I’ve been flying for over 40 years without so much as an incident, yet have never seen an FAA movie.

    Let’s start with that. If they absolutely, positively, must have a movie, there are plenty of private movie production services available.

  • Paul Steger

    How about a hybrid airport, a cross between a towered and uncontrolled field. IFor fields that are not quite busy enough to justify a tower, but with enough traffic to worry about mid-air collisions, you would have mandatory call-outs on the CTAF. Maybe like this: If inbound, pilots must anounce their position no farther out than 5 miles, and then 2 more mandatory call-outs, just before entering the pattern, and then once more before landing. For departing traffic, pilots must call out just before brake release to state the runway they are about to take off from, and their direction of flight. And then one more, when clear of the traffic pattern, but still within 5 miles of the field.

    This of course, is what we all should be doing at uncontrolled fields, but making it a regulation at certain designated high traffic non-towered airports would make me feel a lot better about avoiding traffic, my main worry at non-towered airports.

  • http://none Richard B Smith

    BTW, a close-by uncontrolled airport (within 10 miles ) has had 4 fatal mid-air collisions in less than a dozen years, including the last one where the detached engine from one of the aircraft fell through the roof of a local car dealership and killed an employee at his desk. Despite that, the local city and it’ pilots still haven’t put any other safeguards than, “see and avoid.” You can never trust the other guy…..

  • Jose Marrero

    Control towers at small airports do not increase safety. I’ve flown in the small airport in St Augustine, Florida for 36 years and have seen it evolved to the class Delta it is today(daytime). Too much control of airspace by controllers trying to fly your airplane making it extremely inneficient for flight instruction operations. We would not see a difference in safety if it became a class E full time as it is now when the control tower closes at night. In my view it would become more efficient to flight ops if the control tower does close. Save the Tax payers money and close it now.

  • David a. smith

    Some towers are important and there not because of the total amount of traffic, as the FAA likes to use for measure, but because of the MIX of traffic. NEW in New Orleans is a perfect example. There is a real mix of corporate jets and single engine airplanes and it often gets crazy, even dangerous when the part time tower is closed. It was outright dangerous after hurricane Katrina until the FAA finally re-opened the (FAA) tower and yet the total traffic count would mean this tower would be closed with the FAA’s 150,000 annual traffic count system. There probably are towers that could be closed without compromising safety, but a number of the towers on the proposed closure list, as the one above, that have factors which don’t fit this arbitrary determination system.