Closed airport towers a potential ‘calamity?’ Not likely

With a week to go before “The Sequester,” we’ll be hearing more about what services the government will cut as across-the-board cutbacks are implemented.

What’s somewhat surprising is we haven’t already been told specifics in some cases and an appearance by outgoing transportation secretary Ray LaHood in the White House briefing room underscores the lack of detail.

Lahood told reporters that more than 100 air traffic control towers would be closed, and suggested that travelers could feel the pain.

“Travelers should expect delays of up to 90 minutes at peak airports during sequester,” starting on April 1, LaHood said. “It’s going to be very painful for the flying public.”

The airlines aren’t buying LaHood’s assessment that it could be “a calamity.”

“When they see the kind of cutbacks that are going to be made at some of these towers, they’re going to have no choice,” LaHood countered.

Linking the closing of air traffic control towers with delays by airline travelers also ignores one truth: Most air traffic control towers aren’t in cities where most travelers go. And closing an airport’s control tower doesn’t close an airport.

Take Minnesota, for example. There’s only one very important control tower — the one at Minneapolis Saint Paul International Airport. But it’s not Minnesota’s only control tower. Presumably, the FAA wouldn’t close the tower at such a large airport, not when there are so many other candidates.

There are three other towers in the state staffed by FAA controllers.

Crystal Airport: There is, obviously, no airline service to Crystal. It’s a general-aviation reliever airport, designed to keep smaller planes from needing to land at the big airport. According to the website, Flight Aware, it handles an average of 514 flight operations a day. But that mostly includes planes flying through the airspace, not actual takeoff and landings. Most of the traffic at the airport is VFR — visual flight rules — in which the pilot, not the controller, is primarily responsible for keeping aircraft apart.

Crystal is on the FAA’s list of towers that would likely be closed.

Flying Cloud: The effect of a tower shutdown is somewhat more pronounced because this is the region’s executive airport, with plenty of corporate jets. Generally, there are two controllers in the tower — one handling take-off and landings and one handling ground traffic. Because there are two parallel runways, the closing of the tower mostly affects the ground operations. Pilots, left to their own devices, could cross a runway where a jet is taking off or landing.

But that’s unlikely because there are already provisions in place for a closed tower at Flying Cloud (and every other towered airport in Minnesota). When the tower closes for the night, only one runway is “open” to traffic, eliminating the problem.

Flying Cloud is on the FAA’s list of towers that would likely be closed.

Saint Paul: The downtown airport isn’t close to what it once was. The National Guard helicopter maintenance facility moved most of its operations a few years ago. The flight school closed after the Mississippi River flooding of a decade ago (there’s still a flight school on the field, but it has nowhere near the traffic the old one did), and there hasn’t been scheduled passengers service in a decade. 3M still has its corporate jets there and there are still a handful of executive jets landing each day. But, like Flying Cloud, changing to closed-tower rules presents few problems, and isn’t going to have any effect at all on airline travelers.

Those are the only control towers in Minnesota operated with FAA controllers. But there are several “contract towers” that are operated by private firms under contract to the FAA.”

St. Cloud — Allegiant Air runs a handful of flights a day to the Phoenix area. Could they be affected or delayed if the tower were to be shut down? It’s hard to see how. Back when Northwest Airlines ruled the skies, airline flights made it in and out of uncontrolled airports all the time. It’s not as if it’s every-pilot-for-him/herself. In the absence of a controller, there are radio procedures for keeping an orderly flow of traffic.

St. Cloud is on the FAA’s list of towers that would likely be closed.

Duluth – The airport claims 162 flight operations a day, a third of which are general aviation flights and 14% of which are military. United, Delta, and Allegiant (or their subcarriers disguised to look like the big airline partners) all fly out of Duluth and if there were to be a slowdown in the event of a closed tower, Duluth figures to be the place where it might be felt. But the tower there also stands a good chance of being allowed to stay open because it’s an airport of entry for people flying into the U.S. from Canada. (Update: See comments. Duluth is an FAA tower. It is not scheduled to be closed but may not be staffed overnight)

Anoka/Blaine – This is another reliever airport that actually has a busier schedule than nearby Crystal. It’s almost exclusively general aviation (there are some medical evacuation aircraft based on the field), and the pilots are well schooled in flying in and out of uncontrolled fields.

Anoka is on the FAA’s list of towers that would likely be closed.

Rochester – It claims only 112 aviation operations a day, a third of which are commercial. Because of Mayo, it’s popular for corporate jets too. But, like St. Cloud, it’s not a particularly difficult airspace to fly in and out of. (Update: See comments. Rochester is an FAA tower. It is not scheduled to be closed)

And we know this because busier airports underneath the big MSP airspace don’t have any control towers and traffic comes and goes just fine. These include Lakeville (Airlake), Lake Elmo, and South Saint Paul.

But there’s much more to the nation’s airspace system than the control towers on which Secretary LaHood focused. The most critical operations in these parts comes out of this non-descript building.

faa_farmington.jpg

It’s the FAA’s Minneapolis Center — located in Farmington — and it controls all of the nation’s airline traffic as it passes through (parts of)North and South Dakota, Iowa, Minnesota, Michigan, Nebraska, Wisconsin and a small slice of Kansas and Missouri.

Whatever delays passengers might experience would actually come from furloughs there, although “optional” services to general aviation pilots would most certainly be sacrificed in favor of keeping the airlines happy. The entire air traffic control system is already designed to keep GA operations out of the way of the airlines.

In the meantime, it’s good to keep the dire warnings in perspective and require a transportation secretary to explain how closing towers at airports without airline service is going to significantly hamper the airline-traveling public.

  • Kevin Watterson

    Good post. On a related but different note, the maximum entry age for air traffic controllers, I’ve learned, is 31. I get it, but it just seems a little silly.

  • Sara Grachek

    St. Cloud and Anoka are the only two contract towers in Minnesota. Duluth and Rochester are staffed by FAA personnel. Minneapolis Center is there to not only provide service for airlines, but also to facilitate general aviation and military traffic. The ATC system is not designed to keep the GA and airlines separate – it is one system and all parties have a right to use it. In addition, they provide service for hundreds of smaller airports in their area, and if the additional control towers shut down due to the sequester, they will have to assume control of those air spaces. About the only optional service that could be cut would be visual flight following. The combination of fewer ATCs working due to furlough coupled with additional airspace to control, will most likely result in delays noticeable by the public as controllers try to maintain a safe air space. Bob, I suggest you take a tour of some of the ATC facilities listed in your opinion piece so you have a better idea of how the system operates.

  • Bob Collins

    // The ATC system is not designed to keep the GA and airlines separate – it is one system and all parties have a right to use it.

    I wasn’t clear. It’s not a question of who has access or who doesn’t. And I guess I was referring more to keeping VFR and IFR separate.

    If you’re a transitioning GA pilot and you request Class B airspace entry, I doubt very much you’re going to get it during the sequester. You’ll be faced with going over the top, or going around. Now, it’s true, you might not get it in typical times, too, but I’m willing to bet that during the sequester, they’ll shut out 100% of transitioning GA traffic.

    As you indicated, I suspect that it’ll be nigh on impossible, for example, to get flight following. But I do expect to the extent possible, the FAA will sacrifice as much GA to keep the airlines moving. Unless, of course, they want to make it hurt as much as possible to amp up the political pressure.

    You’ll note that LaHood mentioned almost nothing about GA in his presentation (btw, I interviewed LaHood at Oshkosh a few years ago and found his lack of knowledge about general aviation to be substantial) . And why would he? Nobody not involved in general aviation cares. You can’t scare people by talking about some effect that doesn’t concern them.

    //In addition, they provide service for hundreds of smaller airports in their area, and if the additional control towers shut down due to the sequester, they will have to assume control of those air spaces.

    When they shut down the primarily GA airport towers, those airspaces will be become Class E, same as most of the abutting airspace (except to the surface where applicable). Now, it’s true that could impact flights to those airports who are on IFR, but — if not in IMC, I would certainly expect the inbound to cancel IFR 5-10 miles from the airport.

    Otherwise, I don’t believe at any of those airports, there’s sufficient IFR traffic where it would substantially impact things for an airline traveler.

    That’s not to say the sequester won’t ripple back to the airline traveler, but it won’t be because a tower in Crystal was closed. And, by the way, the controllers in Crystal are great and always have been, and they’ve been trying like the dickens to spread the word that they’d like more GA traffic to use their services up there.

    //About the only optional service that could be cut would be visual flight following. The combination of fewer ATCs working due to furlough coupled with additional airspace to control, will most likely result in delays noticeable by the public as controllers try to maintain a safe air space.

    Yes, it may, but we don’t know that. The post refers only to Secretary LaHood’s connection between the closing of control towers AND the alleged 90 minutes of delay by the passengers. He talked only generally about “fewer controllers” and that delay but he made the connection between the control tower closings and those delays. That’s mostly an attempt to panic people and pressure political opposition; it’s not good information.

    Now, when the FAA is ready to release particulars on the impact at sectors and centers, we can figure out what the impact will be on the airline passengers. But until we get data like that, we can’t.

    And using a word like “calamity” with the data that was provided to back up is just nonsensical and irresponsible, and, as I said, wasn’t backed up by the data that was provided.

    But if you look at the reporting after LaHood’s presentation, you’ll see everyone mostly bit on it, citing tower shutdowns and the effect on the AIRLINE passengers..

    Look, there’s no doubt this is going to hurt airline passengers, so tell me how many miles of airspace a controller in Farmington will be responsible for during the sequester vs. now. Tell me with the total staffing then vs. now, telling me about the increased separation of IFR traffic under sequester vs. now, and then we’ll have something we can sink our teeth into.

    It’s worth noting that the White House today released a state by state impact of sequester and under the heading of “aviation” it AGAIN refused to put any numbers beyond the $600 million the FAA would have to cut, talking in very general terms about “large numbers of controllers.”

    But when you say “closing control towers,” the average person in the public is going to hear “oh, my God, it’s every plane for itself” and that’s going to get the attention of the public to get on the phone with a congressman. I know that and so does a guy who spent decades in Congress. That’s the way politics works, and that’s what this show on Friday was.

    If you’ve gotten some data and you’ve heard of a plan inside FAA for staffing, specifically how the workload will be handled, I’m anxious to hear it. But all we’ve gotten here is, basically, caterwalling and manipulation of public sentiment.

    //Bob, I suggest you take a tour of some of the ATC facilities listed in your opinion piece so you have a better idea of how the system operates.

    You know *I* fly in the system, right?

    // Minnesota. Duluth and Rochester are staffed by FAA personnel.

    Thanks for that. I thought so, too, but then they didn’t show up on the list on the FAA website I was working off. They had separated ATCT from TRACON facilities. Apologies.

    BTW, it’s VERY important to remember that there’s more to the FAA than controllers, including maintenance, inspections, and medical teams. At some point, should the FAA be more specific in its warnings, we can touch on the effect of each of those.

  • Darren

    “On a related but different note, the maximum entry age for air traffic controllers, I’ve learned, is 31. I get it, but it just seems a little silly.” – And the maximum age for controllers “talking to planes” is 56.

  • Kevin Watterson

    Right Darren. Given the expected shortage looming as aging controllers hit mandatory retirement, you’d think they would want to get as many people in the pipeline as they can afford. Not that I would do it, but I’m 32, are the four years more they’d get from someone who’s 28 really that big of a deal?

    The run up to the sequester reminds me so much of the run up to the state shutdown in 2011. They will try to make it sound as awful and as painful as possible, most likely because the vast majourity of people probably won’t notice it when it happens. You have to get them riled up somehow.

  • Brad Koehn

    From the center controllers I’ve talked to they’re planning staffing cuts of 10-20%. I’m expecting a lot of IFR ground delays as a result, since there are limits to how many aircraft per sector.

  • Roger Moore

    The Author is clearly not a pilot and has no clue regarding airport safety. Agre regarding Crystal and perhaps St.Cloud but I am not familiar enough with that traffic.

    (Bob notes. I am a pilot, an airplane owner and I fly in the air traffic control system. You?

    Remember this post is STRICTLY about the claim of calamity as a result of closing towers, not as a result of furloughs in places like Farmington. Nor the lack of maintenance of the system. That’s a MUCH more serious situation.)