Area air traffic control towers could close

March 5, 2013

Air traffic control towers at Craig Airport, Cecil Field and St. Augustine could close April 7 because of forced spending cuts, the Federal Aviation Administration told tower operators on Tuesday.

Those airports were on a list released by the FAA of 173 towers at small- and medium-sized airports facing closure. In addition, the overnight shift at the control tower at Jacksonville International Airport and other larger airports could be eliminated.

"If they cut this tower, this is such a busy airport. You've got Jax International and St. Augustine there's gonna' be a lot more issues," said pilot, Nicholas Alexander.

Tower closures would not necessarily result in airport closures, because some aircraft can land without air traffic control help, and those that need controller help can communicate with more distant FAA facilities. But the contract tower closings will contribute to the workload at other FAA facilities, which simultaneously will be coping with controller furloughs.

Channel 4 spoke with neighbors near Craig Airport who said they weren't happy to hear about less guidance from the ground for pilots who fly over their homes.

"We seen where that plane hit that house (in Palm Coast), we went by it and seen it. Kind of does make you wonder," said Glenn Harvey.

Spenser Dickerson, head of the Contract Tower Association, told CNN that FAA officials gave him the news, capping off a five-day period in which the FAA first told contractors they would close scores of towers, then backtracked on the news.

The FAA said it would consider removing individual towers from the list on a case-by-case basis, if the operators can explain why it is in the national interest to keep them open, Dickerson said.

The news Tuesday, if anything, was worse than previously announced. Last Wednesday, the FAA said it would close 168 towers.

"We're extremely discouraged and disappointed that the FAA is taking this action," Dickerson said. "The rest of the FAA's budget is getting a 5 percent haircut; the contract towers are getting a 75 percent cut, because the FAA is cutting 189 of the 251 contract towers."

"It's hard for us to see the fairness in the budget cuts. It seems the contract tower program is taking a high, disproportionate cut. We have serious concerns about the safety, efficiency and loss of jobs in almost 150 communities across the country," he said.

The FAA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The towers are part of the FAA's contract tower program, in which 251 towers are staffed with contractors instead of FAA employees. Though little-known, contract towers are widely used by the FAA to manage air traffic. Such towers handle about 28 percent of all control tower operations, although the towers being cut account for a little less than 6 percent of commercial airline operations.

A 2011 report by the Department of Transportation's Office of Inspector General said contract towers cost on average $537,000 a year to operate, compared with $2 million for comparably busy FAA-staffed towers. The lower costs were chiefly from lower staffing and salary levels at contract towers, which had an average of six controllers, while FAA towers had 16. And a typical contract controller near Tampa, Florida, received a base pay of $56,000 per year, compared with a base pay ranging from $63,000 to $85,000 a year for an FAA controller in Sarasota, the study said.

Dickerson said contract towers are carrying the brunt of the cuts, despite having comparable safety records and being more cost efficient.

The Northeast Florida Regional Airport in St. Augustine, released this statement to Channel 4 in regard to the cuts:

"Closures would include greatly reduced local safety margins as the airport's 400-800 daily take-offs and landings will be left to the pilots to sort out and assure that adequate margins of safety are maintained," said Executive Director, Ed Wuellner.

But the forced spending cuts, known as the sequestration, are also affecting FAA staff. Most of the agency's 47,000 workers, including its 14,700 controllers, have been told to expect one or two furlough days every two-week pay period. And 49 FAA-staffed towers are on the list of those facing possible closure.

Longtime Pilot, Ed Booth isn't worried about a lack of air traffic towers, he showed Channel 4 a map of Florida with local airports that don't have traffic towers, such as Herlong Airport. Booth said the airports without towers, don't have problems.

"In my opinion the impact on safety is very marginal, because pilots are trained to operate in and out of airport levels without and operating control tower," said Booth.


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