Sign In | Create an Account | Welcome, . My Account | Logout | Subscribe | Submit News | Affiliated Sites | Home RSS
 
 
 

Tower closure delayed

April 6, 2013
By JACKIE STARK - Journal Staff Writer and The Associated Press (jstark@miningjournal.net) , The Mining Journal

MARQUETTE - The closings of control towers at 149 small airports, due to begin this weekend because of government-wide spending cuts, are being delayed until June 15, federal regulators announced Friday.

The Federal Aviation Administration said it needs more time to deal with legal challenges to the closures.

Included in the delay is the control tower at Sawyer International Airport, which was slated for closure May 5 but will remain open until at least June 15.

Article Photos

The traffic control tower at Sawyer International Airport, shown above recently, will remain open past its may 5 closure date, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. Sawyer is among 149 smaller airports in the country that were scheduled to begin closing Sunday but will now stay open until June 15. Journal file photo by Matt Keiser)

"We are very pleased that the FAA has extended the deadline to look at this more comprehensively, to ensure that safety is key in their decisions," Sawyer manager Duane DuRay said. "This extension helps us in our planning for the possible future closure of our tower. Mind you, we were set to close May 5, which is just four weeks from now, and with this extension, it gives us time to really evaluate what we need to do to continue to operate."

The closure will affect five airport employees.

About 50 airport authorities and other "stakeholders" have indicated they want to fund the operations of the towers themselves rather than see them shut down, and more time will be needed to work out those plans, the FAA said in a statement.

The first 24 tower closures were scheduled to begin Sunday, with the rest coming over the next few weeks. Obama administration officials have said the closures are necessary to accomplish government-wide automatic spending cuts required by Congress.

Despite the delay, the FAA said all 149 of the airport towers, which are operated by private contractors for the agency, will be shut down or turned over to local authorities on June 15. The new schedule is to implement the shutdowns at once, rather than a gradual phase-in as had been planned.

The U.S. Contract Tower Association, which represents the companies that operate contract towers, has challenged the closures in federal court. "The administration has decided to make tower closures the poster child of sequestration (automatic spending cuts)," said the group's director, J. Spencer Dickerson. "We believe there are other ways they could have skinned this cat."

Federal officials have insisted that the closures wouldn't affect safety. And there is evidence that with improving safety, some of the closures would make economic sense.

It turns out that the FAA has been using 30-year-old data on aircraft collisions to justify the cost of operating many of the control towers, even though accident rates have improved significantly over that time.

Had the FAA used more current data, it's probable that some low-traffic airport towers operated by private contractors would no longer have met the agency's criteria for funding, industry officials say. But the FAA has long been under pressure from members of Congress to open new towers at airports in their states, not to close them.

The FAA began paying contractors to staff and operate towers at a handful of small airports after President Ronald Reagan fired striking air traffic controllers in 1981. Today, there are 251 towers operated by private contractors at airports across the country at an average annual cost of more than $500,000 each.

The shutdown decision is unrelated to the FAA's use of obsolete safety data to justify the contract tower program.

In 1990, the FAA developed a complicated cost-benefit methodology for the tower program that relies on accident data from 1983 to 1986 to determine how many accidents would be averted and lives saved if an airport had controllers working onsite. The safety data have never been updated, despite marked improvements in accident rates.

In 1983, there were 10.7 accidents for every 100,000 departures involving small planes, business jets and other non-airline flights in the U.S., according to the National Transportation Safety Board. By 2011, the latest year for which figures are available, that rate had dropped to 6.5 accidents per 100,000 departures. The commercial airline accident rate dropped from 0.42 per 100,000 departures to 0.34 per 100,000 over the same period. And fatalities have declined even more. There have been no passenger airline fatalities in the U.S. in more than four years, the longest period without fatalities since the dawn of the jet age half a century ago.

"None of the formulas have been updated since 1990, despite a very significant change in the aviation operating environment and the general aviation and commercial accident rates," the FAA said in a statement Thursday in response to questions from The Associated Press. "The FAA is in the process of updating this policy."

Agency officials offered no explanation for the oversight.

"The FAA methodology likely overestimates present-day collisions," the Congressional Research Service said in a recent report.

Initially the cost-benefit ratios were to be recalculated every two years, but that didn't happen, said David A. Byers, an aviation professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and a consultant to the companies that operate the towers. If they were recalculated now, some airports would certainly fall below the FAA threshold for funding, he said.

Of the nation's 5,000 public airports, only about 10 percent have control towers. Those without towers generally have relatively few flights, and pilots coordinate takeoffs and landings among themselves.

Airport towers are prized by local communities as economic boosters, particularly in rural areas. Airlines are sometimes reluctant to schedule flights to airports where there are no on-site air traffic controllers.

Former Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., a critic of the contract tower program, said he refused to allow lawmakers to insert provisions into bills requiring the FAA to pay for new control towers at airports in their districts when he was chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

"We couldn't always stop it in all instances in the appropriations process, particularly when a bill comes from the Senate and it has a designation of funding for a particular tower," Oberstar said.

Next week, Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan. and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., plan to introduce a bill to require the FAA to resume operations at the 24 towers that were scheduled for closure on Sunday and to prohibit the agency from shutting down any more towers after that.

Jackie Stark can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 242. Her email address is jstark@miningjournal.net.

 
 

 

I am looking for:
in:
News, Blogs & Events Web