Automatic federal budget cuts went into effect this month. This requires the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to trim $637 million for the remainder of the fiscal year that ends Sept. 30. In order to effect these changes, the FFA will be closing 238 air traffic control towers. Most of the FAA’s 47,000 employees will be affected. The first round of closures will be those run by third-party contractors and are not staffed by the FFA and smaller airports with fewer than 150,000 flights per year. These closings will affect airports in nearly every state. This process may begin in early April. Although targeted to close, the airports are free to fund the towers themselves in order to keep them open. Very few existing airports can afford that option.
While most of the targeted airports are small, some overnight shifts may be cut at 72 additional facilities, some in large cities like Chicago and Milwaukee. Airports are evaluating the possibility of canceling or rescheduling flights because of distress to commercial service. It is a concern that full-size jets would be landing without that second pair of eyes they’ve come to rely on.
Without the help of controllers, risk “goes up exponentially,” said Mark Hanna, director of the Abraham Lincoln Capital Airport in Springfield, IL. Operating without controllers, however, is not uncommon for smaller airports. They do it every day, working with procedures that have been around as long as aviation itself. Pilots are trained for such conditions. Several crashes indicate this system is not foolproof.
Jim Montman, manager of the Santa FeMunicipalAirport, which is on the list for tower closures, said the absence of controllers “raises the risk of midair collisions or some sort of incident where somebody lands on the wrong runway. That critical link is gone.” Pilots have incredibly good track records of working without tower staff, “but it never hurts to have somebody else out there helping you watch,” Chicago pilot Robert McKenzie said. “It’s a nice safety net to have.”
Administrator Michael Huerta stresses that safety is the FAA’s key focus.
“When you’re at an uncontrolled field, avoiding that problem is entirely dependent on other pilots not making mistakes,” McKenzie said. “There’s nobody there as a backup.”
In addition to the risks and issues at the airports, some mayors are understandably worried that disruption of air service will affect travel to their cities. Another service that could be affected is the medical helicopter. There is a chance emergency vehicles will choose not to utilize airports unmanned from control towers. Airlines have not yet weighed in on their intention of continuing service to airports without towers.
There is no way to accurately gauge the effect these changes will have on air travel until the FAA makes public its staffing plan.