The Federal Aviation Administration decision to postpone the closure of the air traffic control towers at Felts Field and 148 other airports bought time but not a solution to the controversy caused by an earlier announcement that would have closed many of those facilities Sunday.
The closures were the FAA’s short-sighted, safety-compromising response to “sequester” budget cuts, with possible overnight closure of the Spokane International Airport later this year the second blow. Spokane airport officials had a response of their own: a lawsuit asking a federal appellate court to stop the FAA action for a variety of reasons that make sense if you are running an airport, not flying a desk.
Felts and the other towers are operated by contractors at one-third the cost of FAA operations at major airports handling thousands more flights a day. The total bill comes to $143 million out of an FAA budget of $15 billion.
But what happens beyond June 15, the new closure deadline, remains unresolved. The FAA says it is reviewing its options. The Spokane lawsuit, and more like it submitted by other airports, is ongoing. There are reports legislation may be introduced in the House of Representatives, Senate, or both to fund tower operations through the rest of the fiscal year that ends Sept. 30, or beyond.
Many communities with vulnerable towers fear they will not be restaffed once they are closed.
And that’s just what should happen, according to a new study released by the Reason Foundation, a libertarian think tank. Its findings dovetail with an industry and congressional initiative to change the current decades-old radar-based traffic control system to one using GPS navigation.
The new system would enable the FAA to expand the capacity of towers like that at Sea-Tac, and close or phase out small airport towers. The Reason Foundation envisions more Sea-Tac responsibility for either domestic or international flights. Spokane, which also controls Fairchild Air Force Base traffic, would also absorb responsibility for other Eastern Washington airports. The consolidations could save $1.7 billion up front and $1 billion annually after implementation.
U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, who chairs the Subcommittee on Aviation Operations, Safety and Security, has been a strong supporter of the concept, called NextGen, and has estimated the savings at $7 billion, with the possibility thousands more jobs would be created in Washington as a result of the transition.
Alaska Airlines is already using satellite-based navigation, and saving fuel and time as a result.
The Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation will hold hearings on air travel safety next week, with the likelihood that NextGen implementation will come up during the testimony.
So, the blowup over small-tower closures may be a precursor to another fight when NextGen rolls out. To avoid a political fight, the Reason Foundation suggests a process like that used to identify what military bases should be closed, with Congress taking an up-or-down vote on the whole package.
It’s too soon for that, but it’s past time the nation began adopting for aviation GPS technology built into most ground transportation now.
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