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Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Sequestered Airspace

 

Will FAA close 149 air traffic control towers? Considering the number of last-minute sequestration decisions that have occurred over the last six months, your guess is as good as mine.

Sequestration took effect in March, removing about $637 million from FAA’s 2013 budget, which will force the agency to close 149 air traffic control towers funded by its contract tower program, a process scheduled to begin June 15.

So what does that mean for air traffic? Will the airspace be less safe? Well, yes and no. It depends on who you ask. Many associations in and around Washington have been quick to point fingers and decry the actions, saying it will impact safety and hurt operations at airports that cater to business and general aviation operators.

The communication, navigation and surveillance equipment in the modern aircraft certainly add redundancies in terms of safety. However, the role of the tower cannot be understated. And, at the same time, companies are still continuing the development of cutting-edge technologies designed to further improve safety in the air.

Days before writing this, Avidyne announced the release of its new Traffic Advisory Systems with automatic dependent surveillance broadcast (ADS-B IN) capability, which presents a pilot all of the active and passive air traffic information received. Avidyne credits the development of that technology from research conducted with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on the $4 million, FAA-funded Airborne Traffic Situational Awareness with Alerts (TSAA) development program, launched in 2011 to address minimum operational performance standards (MOPS) for ADS-B, which do not include collision detection and alerting standards.

Note to Congress: All that FAA money you are cutting leads to some really great things!

That’s the problem here. As great as all the latest avionics technology is for pilots, if there’s not enough people to certify that technology, it could take years and years for it to actually make it into the cockpit and provide its targeted benefit to pilots, flight crews, air travelers and air traffic controllers.

The United States has some of the brightest engineers and researchers in the world, working hard to improve the air transportation system with technologies that the average air traveler couldn’t comprehend. But if FAA is constrained by its budget to provide enough inspectors to certify these systems, it gets tricky trying to get them into the aircraft.

“A key concern for [the General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA)] is that the new arbitrary cuts to FAA’s safety organizations, specifically the Aircraft Certification Service (AIR), will further negatively impact the FAA’s ability to support product certification. This will impact the timeliness and ability for manufacturers to certify new aircraft and avionics, including NextGen,” said Jens Hennig, vice president of operations at GAMA.

So what do pilots think of this? Once again, it depends on who you ask.

“When it comes to towers, all you need to look at is the state of Alaska,” said Jeff Reed, a commercial pilot who flies 737s for Alaska Airlines. “Virtually all the airports there are uncontrolled. Towers are required at high-density airports certainly, but smaller low traffic airports can easily get by with an instrument approach and a radio repeater to either ATC or FSS.”

According to the National Transportation Safety Board, in 1983 there were about 11 accidents for every 100,000 departures involving small planes, business jets and other non-airline flights in the United States. By 2011, that number shrank to 6.5 accidents per 100,000 departures. During that time the commercial airline accident rate dropped from 0.42 per 100,000 to 0.34 per 100,000 departures.

Those accident rates didn’t decline without the aid of towers either. By 1993 there were 27 FAA-funded contract towers, and by 2012 that number grew to 250.

“Air traffic control towers play an integral role in ensuring America’s aviation system remains the safest, largest and most efficient in the world. There are few services more important to all citizens, companies, and communities than aviation, so our work with the FAA will focus on containing, to the greatest degree possible, any negative effects of the agency’s decision,” Ed Bolen, president of the National Business Aviation Association said in March.

Welcome to the sequestration of air transportation.

Woodrow Bellamy III is the online editor for Avionics Magazine. He can be reached at wbellamy@accessintel.com.

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