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Monday, March 25, 2013

FAA to Close 149 Air Traffic Towers

Woodrow Bellamy III

FAA on Friday announced its decision to close 149 contract air traffic control towers as part of its reduced operating budget under the recently enacted automatic across-the-board government spending cuts known as sequestration.

The agency said it was forced to reduce its budget by $637 million for the 2013 fiscal year, and reduced the number of planned tower closures from 189 to 149 after considering the impact to the nation's air transportation system, ultimately choosing to shut down those towers that would pose the smallest impact on safety and air traffic congestion.

“We will work with the airports and the operators to ensure the procedures are in place to maintain the high level of safety at non-towered airports,” said FAA Administrator Michael Huerta.

The majority of the towers scheduled to close are at small and medium-sized airports that serve commercial and general aviation air traffic.

In a statement, FAA said it considered the following factors in deciding which towers to close; impact on national security, economic impact beyond the "local community," whether the tower was significant for multi-state transportation, communication or financial networks and the extent to which the tower is critical to assisting with air traffic control at a major airport.

Several aviation industry groups reacted to FAA's announcement, stating that the planned closures will lead to delays for domestic air travelers and an overall decreased level of safety for the nation's air transportation system.

Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association CEO Craig Fuller addressed a group of more than 100 pilots at DuPage Airport outside of Chicago Friday. Fuller said the planned closures target the general aviation industry. The DuPage tower, which supported about 220 takeoffs and landings per day in 2012, was on FAA's original list for planned closures released in early March, but was not included on the official updated list released Friday.

“The FAA should use the flexibility it has to avoid a deep, across-the-country closure of air traffic control towers based on a flawed formula that shuts down towers because they serve general aviation,” said Fuller.

National Air Traffic Controllers Association President Paul Rinaldi said the tower closures will have significant "short-term and long-term effects" on the nation's ability to support the growth of its aviation system, including training new pilots.

"These towers serve other important functions – including law enforcement activity, medical transport flights, search and rescue missions, business and commerce and supporting flight schools across America. Future aviators depend on these airports and tower services to continue their training. Every pilot starts in a small plane, including those who eventually fly commercial or military aircraft. If these schools shut down, an important pipeline of future aviators may be shut down too," said Rinaldi.

National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) President and CEO Ed Bolen was also disappointed with the agency's decision to close 149 towers. In early March after FAA announced its proposed list of 189 towers to be closed, Bolen sent a letter to the agency advocating for alternative measures to be considered, including the decision to save "seven key NextGen programs" while implementing the tower closures and employee furloughs to deal with the budget cuts.

In a statement Friday, Bolen said NBAA will continue working with the agency to ensure that the tower closures do not significantly slow down air travel services for its member companies.

"As we have repeatedly said, 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," said Bolen.

FAA said some of the communities facing tower closures will assume the cost of funding on-site air traffic control services to their local airports, but did not release a list of communities planning to pursue those measures.

The federal contract towers scheduled for closure will begin a four-week phased closing process beginning April 7. 

Related: Congress Passes Funding Bill, FAA Budget Cuts Remain

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