The Tower is Now Really Closed!

March 26, 2013 by Bruce Landsberg

towerSeveral weeks ago as the sequestration was looming, we discussed the wholesale closing of contract control towers at GA airports. Last week the ax fell, indiscriminately in many pilots’ opinion. This is an emotional issue, but as stated in that blog post, now is the time for a clear-eyed view of what is needed—not what is nice to have. Operational needs should always take a back seat to political expediency— or should they? I’m always confused by such things.

The hit list was pared down to about 139 facilities. As Katie Pribyl, AOPA’s Vice President for Communications, noted, the money invested in building the towers was committed only after careful review of the need. In a few cases the towers had only been open a year or so!

In addressing hundreds of pilots over the last several weeks in speaking engagements, many of you agreed that aircraft fly just fine without ground guidance, and there were towers we did not need. But the end justifying the means isn’t always the best way of accomplishing an objective.

My concern is three-fold:

1) The FAA’s “process” appears to have had little operational consideration, or at least not that the FAA was willing to discuss. Transparency in how the decisions were being made other than the “trust us” approach would have been appreciated. A better way to accomplish this might have been to set up a non-political advisory group with the FAA, users, ATC, and affected communities to look at the facts.

Yes, I’m insane, but this worked very well about 15 years ago when the National Weather Service needed to close about 400 weather offices around the country. You can imagine the uproar, but such a group was commissioned to do it based on fact—I was the aviation representative, along with NWS management, the employees union, heavy scientific representation, etc. It worked against the goal of no degradation of service. It took much longer than a few months, but airport operations are a much less arcane science than weather prognosticating.

2) The second concern is re-establishing non-towered habit patterns in the transition. Notams, that wonderfully dysfunctional system of burying critical information within the irrelevant, will become vitally important. Airports that had ATC flexibility may now revert to preferred right-hand traffic patterns in some cases. This can all be handled, but it’s going to take a lot of eyes outside the cockpit, good radio procedure, and solid preflight planning. To refresh everyone’s memory, the Air Safety Institute’s Operations at Non-Towered Airports Safety Advisor is strongly recommended as a review, as is the Say It Right: Mastering Radio Communication online course.

3) Logic would also have suggested that this change become effective with the new sectional chart cycle which is staggered to keep things manageable. Don’t forget that hundreds of instrument approach procedure charts will soon be incorrect and will need to be updated as well. There were some cost savings in here somewhere.

May the FAA focus the rest of its budget cutting on non-critical areas that do not disproportionately target GA.

Can we do this better? What do you think?

Free educational programs like safety advisors and online courses from the Air Safety Institute are available to all thanks to support from pilots everywhere. Help us to keep educating pilots on safety issues by donating to the AOPA Foundation today.

Bruce Landsberg
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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17 Responses to “The Tower is Now Really Closed!”

  1. Herb Ludgewait Says:

    1 Aha! Did”nt know you were partially responsible for our dangerous ,irrisponsible FSS systm. 2. Politically, we all know the the closures are designed to hert the users as much as possible 3 In early 1980′s Pres. Ragan fired the striking controllers and Albert Whitted tower was closed. As buisy as it was, it was only a few days before it worked great as an uncontroled field.

  2. Bruce Landsberg Says:

    Herb….

    Not quite sure I understand about comment #1. I was on the NWS Modernization Transition process – NOT FSS. Two completely different animals. NWS themselves figured out that they could not support an extra 400 weather service offices. It was very much akin to the closing of smaller post offices.

    As I said two blogs ago – there will always be someone whose ox is gored. The question is whether we keep the Ox alive by trimming it down and eliminate unnecessary expense or grow so it collapses under its own weight.

    Controlled dieting is good – which is how NWS did it. FAA went on a crash diet and my hope is that we don’t have a crash or two to prove they did not manage this well.

    Appreciate your thoughts

  3. Carolyn Bomberger Says:

    I am in favor of closing these towers. In most cases, it was a waste of money to have them open in the first place. When I was actively training pilots, I always insisted that a student pilot be able to go in and out of an uncontrolled field safely or I did not cut them loose. Proper communication is essental and reading about the rules of a particular unconstrolled field before going in or out is important. Pilots need to be responsible or they sould not be flying. End of story!

  4. david t-g Says:

    Carolyn, I think you have it wrong. I, like most, learned at a non-towered field; it was talking to those scary professionals on the radio that was the hard part! I can’t say whether the listed towers were a waste or not, but I can give a concrete example: I now almost never fly into KGVL because it’s so busy; I’ve been in two near-misses myself even though my head is on a swivel and I’m both vocal and attentive starting way out, and that’s a pretty common worry; that field really could USE a tower. Can you imagine flying into KAHN on game day or managing proper sequence of a little 172 along with all of the jets that work at KRYY? And when KPDK is the only tower in the neighborhood, trying to get student work done there will take a *really* long time.

    Responsible pilots? Absolutely. Towers not needed? I just can’t buy that one.

    HANW

  5. J Ritchie Says:

    I understand your comments, I live in your area (Atlanta region / North Georgia). Have you ever noticed everytime these articles mention “GA Airports” we are compelled to read them because to us this says “GEORGIA airports”!

    For those in Rio Linda, “GA” is the postal code for the State of Georgia…

  6. Mike Says:

    I’m sure there are cases where the closures may be justified and where life will go on without them but there are also cases where it doesn’t make sense. I think the point is the decision was made in haste. For those who make sweeping generalizations about the towers not being needed, I can only guess that you probably don’t fully utilize their services and/or understand the benefit and added safety margin they provide. As an air ambulance operator for nearly 10 years now, I hope you can understand that, while we are trying to transport somebody’s dad’s/mom’s/grandma’s, etc. heart attack, stroke, burn victim- this could tack on precious additional minutes while we wait for ifr clearances and hold to get in/out etc. I’ll concede that not every air ambulance service will be impacted by this but I know that several will. We don’t know the FULL VALUE these towers provide to communities just as many don’t know the full value that back country and other small airports provide to a community and hastily disposing of these assets without careful review is ignorant and short sighted and will cost us more $$ in the long run. This isn’t just about making a few small planes more comfortable or about making sure the “rich private jet owners” can have tower services at their favorite destinations. This is about an asset that provides a true service to many smaller communities. I’m shocked at the list of closures just in Idaho where I work and live. The airports they are closing will be negatively impacted by the closures and there will be extended delays for ifr services in and out of many of these airports. There are no RCO’s in many of these places. In some cases RCO’s have been decommissioned leaving the only clearance option to be telephone (FSS).
    I’m guessing those who don’t think the towers are necessary have ever tried holding on your cell phone at the end of the runway at idle waiting for a clearance or having a call dropped because of poor cellular coverage. How about the jerk that lands at the airport and forgets to close his/her IFR flight plan while you’re waiting for your clearance out of there? It happens all the time. These are not new problems of course. But now there will be more of them at airports where, at one point, the traffic volume was high enough to justify the need for a tower. So now because of sequestration has that traffic volume gone away? Has the need for the tower gone away? So tell me now that just because it’s possible to operate at an airport without a control tower that we should? If that’s the case, then there are many things we do in aviation that we don’t NEED to. You don’t need 2 hrs of fuel reserve. You only need 45 min for IFR and 30 Min for VFR so why put the extra fuel on. You don’t NEED to use checklists-if you memorize everything you can perform all those items from memory-so why use a checklist? You don’t need Radios to operate at uncontrolled fields so why bother with them either.

  7. Mustafa Says:

    Anytime government, at any level, is forced to take a budget cut, they identify the single most visible, unpleasant item and cut that. This is their way of teaching us not to mess with them. As expected, we debate whether towers are needed instead of debating whether the FAA movie studio is needed.

    So predictable. AOPA lets the FAA set the agenda for discussion. That will get us exactly nowhere. I wonder why I remain a member.

  8. Jeff Cooper Says:

    Let’s thank the Party Of “NO”, do8255-nothing Congress for failing to resolve ANYTHING prior to this fiscal debacle. Ironically they have hurt their flying constituents who seem not to understand that their boys have caused this safety issue which will affect aviation safety for some time. Not quite as stupid as Reagan firing the controllers but right up there. You’ll show us!

  9. Herbert A. Lindo Says:

    I’ve always considered an airport is populated by businesspersons, operations/law/regulation enforcement, as well as airplane pilots, owners and mechanics. Every flyer has a combination of those three last atributes, eventhough some pilots and mechanics only own the knowledge, experience, character and skills to fly safely.
    Not that I’m happy with the now uncontrolled airports, but budgetary restrictions affect everybody and I rather prefer to see my airport go uncontrolled than get my pension reduced.
    With respect to School-Airports, unfortunatelly statistics show a real high percentage of accidents with an instructor on board, but my BIGGEST concern and disrespect is for those many socially show-off “almighty owners”, the eternal “wannabe pilot”, who have spent 5 years, 500 hours and $50.000 (airplane included) not being able to get even a PRIVATE pilot license because their wrong attitude before organized training, lack of study effort, and no respect for safety and regulations, not to mention that their thought their iPad will bring them safely to destination without developing any airworthyness knowledge and skills.

  10. Fred von Zabern Says:

    I’ve flown as a commercial pilot out of Fullerton Airport (FUL) for 36 years, and I’m concerned about this nail in FUL’s coffin. The airport is hard to find, there’s an 800′ radio tower about a mile west that’s been hit twice, and LAX and SNA airspace, and the Disneyland TFR surround it. Business people, fire and law enforcement, overnight package delivery and training activities will continue, but regretfully without the guidance of safe, sequenced, orderly departures and arrivals. Our controllers have done a wonderful job keeping pilots separated, away from other’s airspace, and guiding them safely to the airport. Without them, we now face departure and arrival delays especially when the weather is bad. Instead of coordinating with our tower controllers, we will be required to get our departure clearance via cell phone call to a radar controller in San Diego, and on a one-out-one-in basis. Not to mention the wandering transient pilot who inadvertently becomes a hazard to himself and others. Fullerton City Council people have been heard to say that airports are going the way of horse property. With that attitude, I’d say FUL is a few pilot deviations and/or a couple of accidents away from being closed completely, and another piece of Americana will be lost.

    I thought part of FAA’s charter was to promote aviation? Yes, GA has gradually become financially out of reach more so than it once was, but it’s still an example of useful technology that benefits a wide variety of people who are head-down trying to earn livings in spite of our government’s impositions. I hope these tower closures aren’t truly the beginning of the end.

  11. Herb Ludgewait Says:

    Fred, To promote aviation was removed fromFAA charter a few years ago

  12. Ivo Says:

    I don’t believe the FAA had any concerns on operational safety when it designated the towers to be closed. Case in point: Martin State Airport in Baltimore, MD. The airport hosts a National Guard air base that operates about 20 A-10 ground attack aircraft plus a few heavy C-130 cargo planes. They are often training in and out of the field, as well as exercising pattern work. The airport also hosts two flight schools, a variety of helicopters for the Baltimore City police, local TV stations and other businesses, and about 200 private aircraft of all types. Now, I have seen it personally, the tower there does a wonderful job of keeping all these disparate traffic seamlessly sharing the same airspace with safety. There is just no way that non-towered procedures can be used to safely coordinate that traffic. I am very concerned that an accident is going to happen sooner than we think. I hope I am wrong, and somehow, the non-towered procedures would be enough. But I would like to see something more concrete from the FAA on how that would be possible in that airport.

  13. Jeff Rayden Says:

    URGENT EMERGENCY CALL FOR AOPA ACTION TO AVERT DISASTER, TODAY!!!

    Dear Mr. Landsberg ,

    I am beyond shocked that AOPA has not brought suit against FAA for immediate injunctive relief to oppose the closing of the 179 or so air traffic control towers, all at general aviation airports.

     Your membership needs your support at this very instant to stop this madness.

    I fly  into and out of Whiteman (WHP). It’s compact airspace supports nearly 100,000 GA operations each year. It is also the home of a Civil Air Patrol airbase that  uses WHP for many emergency or counter drug missions. We train young cadets, your future members from this crowded airport. As a private GA pilot, I serve as a CAP / USAF Auxiliary captain, mission pilot and safety officer. I am miffed by the tower closing and concerned for the public welfare.

    WHP is under Burbank (BUR) class C airspace, adjacent to Van Nuys (VNY)and it’s class D.  VNY is the all time busiest GA airport.  WHP is within the very high density Los Angeles airspace complex. 

     On  weekends there can be a dozen or more aircraft in the pattern and approaching the airfield at one time along with a few on the ground ready to roll. Many are not familiar with or report positions properly. The airport owner, Los Angeles County, could easily fund the tower with all their resources. They could furlough a few desk jobs and avert another 1978 San Diego PSA 727 / C-172 mid air type collision or a similar 1986 Cerritos Aeromexico  DC-9 / PA-28  disaster. The later being a key factor in why the current  WHP tower was built.

    The decision to close Whiteman was part of an objective mathematical cost cutting formula.  It did not subjectively look at the airspace and dangers involved with this airport’s operations or, surely, I’d not need to write this letter.

    Where is your voice and concern for air safety now??
    This is a disaster waiting to happen at worse. At best, the decision will lead to increased infractions and airman violations.

    If you don’t immediately step up to the plate it will be clear to me and other pilots that your best interest lies not in safety,  rather than in the member dues, commissions from insurance policies, legal plan fees, and share in credit card transaction fees to support your operations, management and their benefits.

    The targeting of these GA tower closings are at the heart of the safety of tens of thousands of your members who fly in and out of the airports with towers being closed. Their operations are in the midst of millions of airline passengers every year. A mid-air accident now will subject GA to the worst public relations debacle,  awful scrutiny, more restrictions, and likeliness of user fees.

    I demand and beg that you discuss this concern with you  management this morning, get your Washington D.C. attorneys in Federal court this afternoon and file for temporary injunctive relief to protect your membership and the flying public in what we believe are your true interests of safety and the existence of general aviation.

    You should now also contact members of the Los Angeles County , and its Board of Supervisors along with their Department of Public Works  and demand they fund the WHP tower from emergency  reserve funds, and  least for the next 30 days as a stop gap measure while more can be done to bar these airport towers from closing until a proper review or legal actions undertaken. While they own and operate other airports, WHP is clearly a safety concern and serves the largest population and base of operations.

    I was the lead plaintiff in a class action suit in the 1990′s that was filed within days of monster America Online’s rash financial decision to switch from a hourly based service to a monthly flat fee. They did not do a proper review of the implications of the mass demand of their service against the current infrastructure that existed. Their key concern was in their budget and not the true interest of their members or the public at large that suffered for weeks as the internet came to a grinding halt. AOL was brought to their knees by this action paid tens of millions to the public.  This action and its relief broke the  strangle hold they held as the leading Internet service provider. My compensation for my public service was only one of millions of the $19 coupons issued by AOL and,  of course, knowing I had much to do about ceasing the unfair practices and end to the greedy management of AOL.

    This matter is of a similar nature. Objective financial concerns  of the FAA has caused a decision to be rashly implemented without apparent concern for the masses and infrastructure needed to advert a potential disaster. The AOPA is the leading public oversight organization for general aviation and has now publicly done little to effectively stop the bulling of the federal administration with this  knee jerk, short sighted dictate. After attending a public meeting hours ago with FAA, county and airport representatives is was clear that the infrastructure and policies needed have not yet been developed to assure the most safe transition to the many areas now facing untowered  operations.

    I am not a lawyer nor know much about the legal options available. However, I deeply believe that AOPA has the knowledge of the proper legal actions and resources to get this matter in to the courts… today. You can stop the closures before Sunday!

    Great consternation and grave concerns are keeping me up at night and fill my head daylong over the demise of general aviation and subsequently the effectiveness and health of AOPA over the fallout from this travesty. As such, and if needed, I’ll come out of retirement as a public plaintiff and offer my service without concern for compensation for the millions effected by the hasty decision of the FAA to enact poor public policy and AOPA of ineffectively  dealing with the matter.

    I am sure AOPA is desirous of avoiding any litigation either brought for or by its membership regarding this issue. But this issue lies the crux of AOPA’s existence and this urgent call for your duty in this mass extinction blitz of GA air services is unlike any other you have faced before. Fellow members and I pray you rise to meet this challenge now and lead us from these  crossroads with the full strength, resources, and voice of the hundreds of thousands who have empowered you and supported your many good efforts in the past.

    Very truly yours,

    Jeff Rayden
    AOPA member 02360891

  14. Bruce Landsberg Says:

    Jeff….

    You will be pleased to know that tower closures have been temporarily halted. The AOPA Gov’t Affairs team has been very busy in Washington. Additionally, you can read http://www.aopa.org/advocacy/articles/2013/130405faa-delays-contract-tower-closings.html

    Secretary LaHood probably didn’t expect the response he got from multiple directions and thus the back-pedaling. As noted in the blog, not all towers should stay open but the decision must be made fairly and without political interference either pro or con – something that’s been lacking a bit lately.

    Thanks for your note.

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