When Congress allowed sequester to proceed and the FAA decided to close 149 air traffic control towers the expected howls of protest went up. It turns out that the FAA has decided to close non-union contract air traffic control towers rather than any FAA staffed control towers. Hmmm... nothing political in that, right?
Why Contract Air Traffic Control Towers?Many of us older pilots remember when President Ronald Regan had his battle with PATCO (Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization) and fired all of the unionized employees staffing air traffic control towers in 1981. These contract air traffic control towers are typically located at smaller airports that primarily serve general aviation aircraft. These airports typically have low activity numbers but in recent years with the growth of commuter airlines connecting small communities to larger hub airports the aircraft mix at these airports has changed.
Contract Air Traffic Control Towers Save $According to the GAO (General Accounting Office) of the federal government air traffic control towers operated by private firms with non-unionized employees typically cost $ 1.5 million less per year to operate than similarly FAA operated and staffed air traffic control towers. Given the decline in general aviation flight activity over the last decade it is clear that many of the airports served by these contract air traffic control towers are not as critical as in past years. Think about all the air traffic that existed during World War II here in the United States with all of the flight training, aircraft transition training and ferry flights overseas with few air traffic control towers in existence. Did the world come to an end without air traffic control towers everywhere? Have we become too dependent upon controllers in air traffic control towers to keep us safe?
What About Safety?In an April 3rd article about air traffic control towers at small airports Bloomberg writer Alan Levin wrote that:
A study of more than 200 airports by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration obtained by Bloomberg contradicts previous agency findings and adds new fuel to the debate over the shutdown of 149 towers run by private contractors. The FAA found almost identical numbers of accidents occurred near airports in the five-year period before a tower was opened compared with a five-year span afterward. The study examined accidents that occurred near more than 200 of the 251 airports operated by private firms under contract to FAA.John Hansman, an aeronautics professor at MIT said in an interview about closing air traffic control towers at smaller airports:
While having a controller on duty may help prevent accidents including mid-air collisions, those types of crashes are so rare that it would be difficult to spot in accident data. In general, towers that have low traffic levels should be able to go to uncontrolled procedures without any difficulty or increase in risk.
Here Come The AlarmistsIn a March 29th article in Aviation Week & Space Technology by John Croft about the closure of air traffic control towers that there are "Safety Risks Uncharted For Tower Closings" he details a scary story:
In the dark of night last February, the pilot of a single-engine light aircraft skidded to a stop on the main runway at the Salisbury-Wicomico County Airport after his gear collapsed on landing. The pilot got out with the aircraft still on the runway, shut off the lights and walked to a nearby facility for help. “We knew something wasn't right because [the pilot] never called 'clear of the runway,'” says Bill Penna, air traffic manager at the airport, one of two controllers on duty that night. “We had a US Airways Express Dash 8 that called in ready for takeoff to Philadelphia on the same runway, and we said, 'Something's not right. Just hold everything and we're going to [check] the runway with our trucks.' The ground support guy drove out to look and there was an airplane on the runway. [So] US Airways was delayed.” The keen intuition of former military controllers like Penna could disappear at a large number of U.S. airports this spring as the FAA halts funding for 149 of the 251 “contract” towers—those staffed by civilian controllers—starting April 7.Question: If there had been no one manning this air traffic control tower when this incident occurred who would have been responsible for the safety of this US Airways Dash-8?
Pilot In Command ResponsibilityThe simple answer to the question above can be found in FAR (Federal Aviation Regulation) Part 91.3: Responsibility and authority of the pilot in command:
(a) The pilot in command of an aircraft is directly responsible for, and is the final authority as to, the operation of that aircraft. (b) In an in-flight emergency requiring immediate action, the pilot in command may deviate from any rule of this part to the extent required to meet that emergency. (c) Each pilot in command who deviates from a rule under paragraph (b) of this section shall, upon the request of the Administrator, send a written report of that deviation to the Administrator.Even if there was an operating tower and an incident like this occurred resulting in an accident does any pilot believe the Pilot In Command of the Dash-8 would have escaped responsibility for the accident?