As we near the date when some air traffic control towers will close, the claims of unsafe skies are gaining volume. Most of it, though, remains guesswork.
In a story filed today, the Associated Press headlines "Planned closure of nearly 240 air traffic control towers will strip away layer of safety."
The planned shutdown of nearly 240 air traffic control towers across the country under federal budget cuts will strip away an extra layer of safety during takeoffs and landings, leaving pilots to manage the most critical stages of flight on their own.
The towers slated to close are at smaller airports with lighter traffic, and all pilots are trained to land without help by communicating among themselves on a common radio frequency. But airport directors and pilots say there is little doubt the removal of that second pair of eyes on the ground increases risk and will slow the progress that has made the U.S. air system the safest in the world.
I've already written extensively on the likely effect of the planned closures because of "the sequester," so I won't bother repeating how the system won't collapse, at least based on the scant information those who say it will have provided so far.
There's no question that having another set of eyes watching airport operations -- even at a dull airport -- adds a level of safety; that's simple logic. But the AP story overstates the threat a bit.
Here's one description of the comments of the only pilot the AP put in its piece. He flies a small plane:
Chicago pilot Robert McKenzie, who has a commercial license but primarily flies a small Cessna, has a lot of experience landing at smaller airports without control towers.
Doing so involves a lot more concentration, he said. Pilots have to watch for other aircraft, take note of weather conditions, look for debris on runways and make calls over the radio -- all while operating their own plane.
A little more concentration isn't a bad thing. The FAA has been trying to get pilots to add it for years. And, in fact, controllers do not absolve the pilot from the responsibility to see and avoid other aircraft. That's the pilot's responsibility. Any pilot who supplies less concentration because there's a controller in a tower, is doing it wrong in the first place. Winds, weather, stuff on the runway, and talking on the radio? Pilots have to do that whether there's a control tower or not.
It's also worth noting that equipment inside even small airplanes is vastly different from just a few years ago. Many, including the one I built, are equipped with passive traffic warning systems. And, although it won't do any good for this sequester crisis, in a few years, every plane -- even the small ones -- will have the same image of air traffic in front of them that air traffic controllers have on their screens on the ground.
Most troubling, he said, would be the loss of towers at airports such as Springfield and Santa Fe, which are used by a mix of small private planes and larger passenger aircraft that often converge on airfields at different speeds and using different procedures. Controllers keep those planes safely separated and sequenced for landings.
True, addressed in my previous post on the subject, and not that troubling. But let's take the afternoon rush hour at Sante Fe, as an example. Here's what it looked like this afternoon, courtesy of flight aware. The traffic destined for Santa Fe is depicted in light blue. Yes, there was only one.
It's a SkyWest flight which, at this particular position, probably wasn't being controlled by Sante Fe tower at all. For most of the flight, it was probably under the watchful eyes of Albuquerque Center, an FAA facility. True, the image is a little misleading because only traffic being controlled in the air traffic control system is depicted.
Over the course of 4 hours today, Sante Fe tower handled 11 flights.
This does bring up, however, one problem with taking away the tower. If there are instrument conditions, controllers taking over for a closed Sante Fe tower would be allowed to send a flight into Santa Fe one at a time, keeping any other flights out of the same airspace. But that's unlikely to be a significant problem, because Sante Fe doesn't get that much traffic to begin with, which is why its tower might be among those closed.
But that clearly is going to be a problem at busier airports -- Santa Monica, CA., comes to mind -- in that there will be some delays for pilots under the so called "one in-one out" policy. But the whole idea of that is safety and separation
In addition to round-the-clock tower closures, overnight shifts could be eliminated at 72 control facilities, including at much larger airports such as Midway, which sees an average of 50 flights daily between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m., nearly all of them passenger flights operated by carriers that include Southwest and Delta.
That raises the possibility that full-size jetliners could be landing there without any help from controllers.
Any help? A "full-size" jetliner is getting help from controllers right up until the time the controller instructs them to "contact the tower," usually fairly close to the airport. A jetliner would not be "flying blind" into Midway. There are no overnight departures from Midway. Still, it's hard to see the FAA closing the Midway tower unless the politics of the situation required things to hurt a little more than they otherwise would.
Meanwhile, up in Milwaukee, the news that the tower there could be closed overnight was met with the shrug of the shoulders by the airport manager.
"We don't have any regularly scheduled airline flights from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m.," he told the local AP bureau.
Hundreds of small airports around the country routinely operate without controllers, using procedures in place since the earliest days of aviation. Pilots are trained to watch for other aircraft and announce their position over the radio during approaches, landings and takeoffs.
But past crashes, however rare, have exposed weaknesses in that system.
On Nov. 19, 1996, a 19-seat United Express flight landing in Quincy, Ill., collided with another twin-engine turboprop that was taking off. They slammed into each other at the intersection of two runways, killing all 14 people aboard the two planes.
The National Transportation Safety Board concluded the probable cause was a failure of the pilots in the outbound flight to monitor the radio frequency for air traffic and to properly scan for other planes.
"If a tower was there, it's highly likely that that accident would have been prevented," said Hanna, who became director of the Quincy airport about two years after the crash and before moving to the job in Springfield.
It's hard to argue with that. And it sounds simplistic to say "mistakes happen" but they do. They happened over the skies of downtown Saint Paul in 1992 when two planes, under the direction of a tower controller, collided and crashed near the old Gillette plant. They happened in Lexington, KY., in 2006 when a controller didn't notice the plane he was directing took off from the wrong runway and crashed. They happened when controllers in Minneapolis accidentally put an airliner and a cargo plane on a collision course a few years ago. And they happened when things were so quiet overnight in Washington DC's tower a few years ago, that the controller nodded off.
But citing those as an example of a control-tower system not working is as inaccurate as citing a 1996 crash at an airport as an example that untowered airports are unsafe.
To be fair, tower controllers do a fine job and serve a valuable function. For the sake of safety, of course it's better to have them working than furloughed. But in this political chess game of sequester, it's also important to take a deep breath and assess the extent to which each move inflicts damage.
And to that extent, it's impossible to say what the overall effect is going to be until the FAA releases a staffing plan for all controllers in the system, and provides us with details on how the workload is going to be divided among those still employed.
You seem to forget an important point...FAA put these towers in place for one big reason - safety. They justify these facilities by quantifying the saving of lives from mid-air collisions and other accidents. Fun fact - FAA says you are worth $9.1 million alive if you can be spared an untimely death as a result of an avoidable aircraft accident at one of these airports.
Consider that 10 million flights are handled by these contract towers every year? You don't really hear much about mid air collisions. That's because they are doing the job - saving lives.
Frankly, I see this as political theater of the highest caliber. The White House can close down tours - no one dies. National Parks can close down restrooms - no one dies. Close down 173 control towers simultaneously (April 7th at this point), someone will die...this is a statistical assurance using FAA's own accident data.
So, too soon to panic? I guess we'll see.
//FAA put these towers in place for one big reason - safety. They justify these facilities by quantifying the saving of lives from mid-air collisions and other accidents.
I don't miss that point at all. That goes without saying. What other possible reason WOULD there be to put a control tower at an airport besides safety?
But that's not really the point of either post. It's that until more sense prevails, pilots will be able to handle the situation at these airports, which, I suspect, is why you don't hear a lot of stories yelling "fire" that involve pilots doing the yelling.
Your statement that someone will die is obviously true. It's true whether there are towers or not. Three people died today at Fort Lauderdale and there was nothing the people in the tower could do about it. The question is will someone die because the towers at the smaller airports are closed?
The reality is that they are less likely to than the "oh my god people are going to die" at these airports press and some in the administration are suggesting.
If 11 planes in four hours can't figure out how to get into a traffic pattern at an airport like Santa Fe, fly the pattern and get on the ramp, then there's a whole 'nother story here going uncovered.
Also, if there is to be a midair collision, I suspect it would more likely involve transitioning aircraft, not aircraft in a pattern at an airport, but more likely just outside a Class D (St. Paul, for example), and below the Class B (the big airport, basically) airspace.
That's exactly where the last midair collision in Minnesota took place. In that no-man's territory near Oakdale that is between South St. Paul airport, Lake Elmo, and downtown St. Paul. Three airports with three different frequencies.
I'll take my chances flying a traffic pattern anytime -- tower or no tower -- because at least THERE there's some sense of order and procedures.
I look forward to having the towers back open again, it makes flying into and out of those easier for me. No question. It makes it safer; no question -- I said that in the post. But that doesn't necessarily mean it's unsafe.
Also, I wish i could get rid of this feeling that a lot of people are hoping someone in a plane crashes at an untowered airport just so they can say "I told you so." But I can't.
That makes me even MORE attentive when I fly.
The air traffic control system is made up of lots of pieces, as you know better than most people, Dr. Byers. And I'm not above panicking when necessary -- I've got some skin in the game -- but until we see the whole plan for how all the airspace will be handled, how controller duties will be assigned, what workload reduction and services will be necessary, it's ridiculous to yell "fire" until we can actually evaluate the system.
Let me see that plan, FAA, and I'll be the first to join the mob if I think it has a good chance of killing me.
(by the way, for those who don't know, Dr. Byers is at the University of Nebraska Omaha and is a highly regarded expert -- including by me -- on general aviation and airports. He knows what he's talking about!)
//The question will someone die because the towers at the smaller airports are closed.
Yes, there will be casualties. Its not just in the number - 10 million operations per year (CY 2012) speaks for itself. And some airports I'm sure, can operate safely without a tower. But to suddenly withdraw ATC services from high traffic areas and places where coordination with other major commercial airports is vital - that just invites an accident. Hawthorne CA, Trenton, NJ, Hollywood North Perry (FL), and Fulton County (GA) are just a few examples of those on the closure list.
I can not (nor do I want to) believe the FAA has totally ignored or worse, abrogated its mission for providing "...the safest, most efficient aerospace system in the world". If the FAA's proposal is to suddenly and simultaneously close 173 towers and they believe this can be done without any significant threat to the safety of you and me and the thousands of other pilots and their passengers using these airports, then I sure wish they would reassure me.
Panic, I agree, is probably not an appropriate response, but deep serious concern - absolutely.
Be aware, I appended my original response to appropriately identify the heft of your credentials.
I don't really understand why we're not seeing a plan from the FAA here. And if there's an area where I really think the AP story fell short, it's in the fact that there's NO PLAN!!! I mean, geez, they're going to redraw the entire nation's airspace in the next three weeks? THAT'S what's crazy.
To me, THAT is a HUGE safety issue, because it's -- again, to me -- it's not so much that the towers are closed, it's that there's no time to tell anyone that the pilots are closed.
The sectionals can't be changed, even if people flew with updated charts (which, they don't, quite often). If airspace is Class D going to Class E, who's going to tell the pilot? ATIS? That's a crappy solution.
So, again, to me the danger in the sky isn't so much that a tower is closed, it's that you are likely to have confused pilots flying around the airspace. That's never a good thing, of course.
I suppose that's too technical for the AP to get into, but that part actually DOES scare me a fair amount.
(By the way, I'm hoping to fly the RV-7A to Phoenix next week -- weather permitting -- and plan to sit and chat with a friend down there who's a controller in the Los Angeles airspace to see what he's hearing for a plan. Will report back.)
Something you gentlemen don't realize is that most of these towers lessen the workload on the approach controllers, now with the one in one out scenario all traffic will be worked by approach control, if that particular controller has 2 or 3 controlled airports that will now be uncontrolled, now he/she is stuck reading multiple clearances and having multiple aircraft calling for releases, tasks that the towers normally take care of, so while he or she is reading a clearance or being distracted by some task normally taken care of by the tower, aircraft are getting closer and closer together, solution to that give that controller another body to help read those clearances and things of that nature, that body has to come from somewhere, oh from somewhere else in the radar room now some other service that was being provided somewhere else in the room is no longer being provided, not to mentioned being furloughed, so now you have even less bodies to work more positions within the approach control, the stress level will increase, controllers are going to get burned out, i just hope you gentlemen aren't in their airspace when it happens, also hope you are not third in line at the hold short with a couple of arrivals inbound, have you have plenty of gas money sitting at the hold short for 20 minutes, due to the one in one out scenario when if there had been a tower you would have been airborne in 3, good luck
//Something you gentlemen don't realize is that most of these towers lessen the workload on the approach controllers,
We actually discussed that in the first post and I referenced it here in noting that until we have a full plan from the FAA -- and I can understand why they haven't released it; you'd probably lose some scenarios they need to exert pressure on the public -- we can't fully evaluate that.
Yes, there would be an effect on app/dep and we can evaluate that just as soon as the politicians who run the agency step forward with their plan.
As far as one-in/one-out, yes, some guy is going to be sitting waiting for clearance at Anoka and spending more money on fuel. And the public could not possibly care less about him. Sitting on the ground, he's not a threat to anybody, and sitting on the ground, he's not delaying grandma over at the big airport -- the only two scenarios the FAA has to whip the average non-pilot into a frenzy over this.
I'm at the point where, hey, we're three weeks away, you knew sequester was coming, don't give me the "mights" and "mays" and "coulds". Let's see the plan and let's analyze the data.
Bob, in talking to other pilots I find the response divides into two camps - those who fly at busy towered airports, and those whose home airport is uncontrolled. The towered airport pilots especially appreciate the sequencing and traffic callouts by tower controllers. The uncontrolled guys say "what's the big deal?".
Flying at a towered airport during a busy time ( try Anoka or Flying Cloud at 5pm ) gives you an appreciation for what the tower can do for you. It's worth noting the expected action is closure of the towers at ANE, FCM, STC and MIC - all the relievers in the Twin Cities area other than STP.
Are there some towers - contract or FAA - that could be closed without affecting safety? No doubt. There others with times of day that are going to be very... interesting.
The backlash building against this FAA tower shutdown has a lot to do with the decimation of the contract towers - about 174/250 are on the closure list. Sitting back and waiting isn't really an option. The FAA intends to announce the final closure list next Friday, and close them 4/7.
// The uncontrolled guys say "what's the big deal?".
I learned at downtown, have flown mostly out of Flying Cloud, and am now based at South Saint Paul. I don't know where I fit in to this particular definition. Two towered airports that are quite busy (well, St. paul DT used to be WAYYY busier than it is now) and one untowered one lying in some hellacious airspace.
Maybe that's why I think somewhere between "what's the big deal," and "oh my God, people are going to die," there's a little sliver of reality.
The problem here is this a political football and in political football games, finding reality isn't really in the best political interest of the participants playing the game.
You suggest I don't have an appreciation of "what the tower can do for you." That's unfair. I obviously do.
What I don't have an appreciation for is bad information or conclusions based on incomplete information.
We don't have time to wait? Yes, you're probably right, and the fact that we haven't been given enough information to make an informed assessment, thrown only the occasional crumb, with so little time left, tells me that the goal here is, simply, panic. The players in this game want this to hurt as much is possible and get people as afraid as possible. THAT's the play they're running and that's probably the play I'd run too if I was in their line of work.
The only thing that can ever make the game stop is if *we* stop being willing participants in it.
That's why it's important that as individuals have the knowledge-- facts, not hysteria -- of what we know and what don't know and keep demanding the answers for what we don't know of the people who are basically telling us, "we'll let you know eventually but for right now , just go ahead and panic... and, oh, also call my political opponent and put the pressure on."
Bob, please don't take my observation about uncontrolled/tower pilots so personally. I've just noticed that people who don't fly in the high traffic areas may assume every airport is as uncrowded as their own. So you've experienced FCM. Good, then you understand.
I completely agree about political footballing. The Kansas senator, Jerry Moran, who has the amendment in play to keep ALL the towers open is a case in point. He's somehow managed to attract democratic co-sponsors in spite of steamy rhetoric about the "administration playing politics with sequester shutdowns". That game is how the sequester was created in the first place.
As far as actual data - the FAA's criteria was less than 150,000 operations a year or less than 10,000 commercial flights yearly. That is a lot of airports, and some of them may not average high traffic but certainly have their moments. Like Anoka, MIC and FCM.
Here is a spreadsheet with the FAA's traffic levels so you can see where they fall:
Enough. Time to head to the airport.