Zombie Air Towers
by Robert Poole
Issue 217– December 26, 2012
Everyone interested in the successful implementation of NextGen should be grateful for the dogged investigative reporting of Bloomberg reporter Alan Levin. In a three-part series on “zombie towers” (Nov. 13-15), Levin disclosed that 102 U.S. control towers have so few flights at night that they should be shut down during those hours, at a potential saving of $10 million per year.
These towers were identified by an FAA study carried out in 2010-11, released to Levin thanks to his Freedom of Information request. FAA standards say that if an airport averages fewer than four flights per hour overnight, the tower can be closed down during what would otherwise be the night shift. It is legal and safe for low-activity airports to remain open without the tower in service. Levin’s research found that there are at least 50 U.S. airports that don’t have a tower at all but reported 2,000 or more airline flights in 2010. Bill Voss, CEO of the Flight Safety Foundation, told Levin that “at very low-traffic airports, it is perfectly safe for aircraft to operate without air traffic control.” Pilots in such situations are required to coordinate with other pilots by radio.
But to make matters worse, in the wake of media attention to sleeping controllers on midnight shifts, DOT Secretary Ray LaHood in April ordered thatall towers must have at least two controllers on duty during midnight shifts. Of the 27 towers that got an additional controller due to this order, 23 were among the 102 towers without enough overnight traffic to stay open.
So farnone of these 102 towers have been closed at night. The reason is congressional opposition. Levin’s investigative work uncovered at least 26 cases in which members of Congress “pressured the [FAA] regarding controller staffing levels or the location of air traffic facilities from 2010 through May 2012.” Among the cases he documented were Detroit’s Willow Run Airport and the Tri-State Airport in Huntington, WV; the latter doesn’t have a single period either day or night when it averaged more than four flights per hour.
There’s a lot more in this series, but let me move on to the implications, some of which Levin also pointed out. As the DOT Inspector General’s office has noted, achieving the productivity gains promised by NextGen will require not only new technology and procedures but large-scale reconfiguration of U.S. airspace and large-scale consolidation of ATC facilities to match. That will mean merging en-route and terminal airspace in large metro areas, to be managed from much larger integrated control centers, leaving only a handful of en-route and oceanic centers. It should also mean merging numerous small TRACONs into consolidated facilities and perhaps replacing many low-activity towers with remote-tower facilities managing landings and take-offs at several low-activity airports.
If Congress is in a position to fight to keep open every ATC facility that is in some member’s district, this kind of consolidation will be impossible—and with it, the expected productivity gains. As Levin also points out in his articles, commercialized air navigation service providers overseas (e.g., in Australia, Canada, Germany, the U.K., etc.) have successfully consolidated en-route centers and other facilities without political interference. For those ANSPs, closing or opening facilities is abusiness decision, thanks to enabling legislation that provides the ANSPs with business autonomy. But under the FAA Air Traffic Organization’s current governance and funding model, such decisions are inherently politicized.
The other obstacle arises because the ATO is part of the FAA, which is the U.S aviation safety regulator. When controllers or others raise what may be legitimate safety concerns about a proposed facility closure or consolidation, the FAA is in a conflicted position: it is both the proponent of the change and the arbiter of its safety. If safety regulation were organizationally separate from air traffic control operations (as it is in the more than 50 countries with commercialized ANSPs), the FAA would be the arm’s-length safety regulator, whose decisions should not be overturned by Congress.
Thus, what we are seeing in the case of keeping zombie towers in operation overnight is a preview of what we can expect to see as the ATO attempts to embark on large-scale facility consolidation. The ATO’s aviation customers should not stand still for the politicization of these decisions.
Robert Poole edits the Reason Foundation’s Air Traffic Reform News, where this first appeared.