Local Aviation Facing Rough Skies as Sequester Looms Over Connecticut’s Municipal Airports

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The control tower at Danbury Municipal Airport, which is scheduled to close on April 7 under the sequester. Photo by Alec Jordan.

 

Six Connecticut airports are scheduled to close their air traffic control towers as a result of the sequester, a group of cuts to federal spending, which took effect on March 1. The legislated budget cuts seek to reduce government spending by $85 billion total, with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) alone expected to cut $600 million in spending. These tower closures will go into effect on April 7 unless Congress can reach a deal to end the sequester.

 

The six control towers subject to closure belong to Connecticut’s six municipal airports: Danbury Municipal Airport, Tweed New Haven Regional Airport, Sikorsky Memorial Airport, Waterbury-Oxford Airport, Hartford-Brainard Airport, and Groton-New London Airport.  Other control towers throughout the country are also scheduled to close due under the sequester.

 

Danbury Municipal Airport Assistant Administrator Michael Safranek compares flying without a tower to driving without traffic signals.

 

“The best analogy I can give is to picture a busy intersection in town; now remove all the stop signs and the traffic lights,” Safranek wrote in an email. “The cars can still get through the intersection, but with much more difficulty.  The Air Traffic Controllers act as the traffic lights and stop signs in the air.”

 

Pilots flying into Danbury Municipal Aiport, the third busiest airport in the state, will have to rely on a low-tech “See and Avoid” method to stay safe, according to Safranek.

 

“Each pilot would now become the de facto  ‘controller,'” he explained, again likening the situation to a familiar driving scenario. “Kind of like when you come to a stop sign intersection and each driver waves the other through the intersection, or the first one to the intersection is the one that travels through the intersection first.”

 

While shutting down six air traffic control towers, which would affect 370,000 flights according to Safranek, was a contentious decision in and of itself, the fact that the towers being shuttered are “contract towers” exacerbates the controversy.

 

The employees that staff contract towers are not FAA workers –– they are employed by private companies that meet FAA regulations.  The controllers are certified weather observers, and in the case of Danbury Municipal Airport, all are former military air traffic controllers.

 

 

The employees that staff contract towers are not FAA workers –– they are employed by private companies that meet FAA regulations.  The controllers are certified weather observers, and in the case of Danbury Municipal Airport, all are former military air traffic controllers.

 

 

   A map of Danbury Airport shows the surrounding hilly terrain.

Calvin L Scovel III, Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Transportation, outlined the benefits of contract towers before a Congressional subcommittee on aviation in July of 2012, citing empirical evidence in his report, “Update on the Safety and Cost Aspects of the Federal Aviation Administration’s Contract Tower Program”:

 

“Contract towers also continue to provide cost-efficient air traffic control services, with the average contract tower costing roughly $1.5 million less to operate annually than a comparable FAA tower –– due largely to lower staffing and salary levels,” Scovel stated.

 

While the cost of contract towers is significantly less than FAA towers, Scovel also made clear that these towers do not compromise safety for the sake of cost efficiency.

 

“Our ongoing work has found that contract towers had a lower number and rate of reported safety incidents than similar FAA towers and that Agency safety evaluations found fewer deficiencies with contract towers,” Scovel reported.

 

The fact that spending cuts were made on aviation personnel, let alone the cost-efficient contract employees, has irked some in Congress.

 

John Thune (R-SD) and Bill Shuster (R-PA) are two such Congressmen. They wrote a letter to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, questioning if cutting personnel was necessary at all.

 

The letter partially outlines the $2.7 billion non-personnel related budget of the FAA, which they feel should have been examined first before resorting to tower closures and furloughs. Part of that budget, according to their letter, includes a $179 million annual travel budget for FAA employees.

 

The two Congressmen also were curious about the decision to target contract towers.

 

“We know that FAA plans to shut down a significant number of contract towers, even though the contract tower program has continuously proven to be cost effective. How was this choice made?” they inquired via their missive.

 

Regardless of whether the decision to close these contract towers was a prudent versus a political maneuver, if Congress can’t balance the budget and thus avoid the sequester, one thing is certain––Connecticut’s aviation faces significant turbulence in its future.

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