Long-defunct National Airlines in the 1960s ran advertisements asking the question, “Is this any way to run an airline? You bet it is.”
It wasn’t. And the same can be said for the Federal Aviation Administration decision Friday to close the control towers at Felts Field and 148 other airports because of sequestration budget cuts.
Among the other casualties: Olympia, Renton and Yakima in Washington; and Idaho Falls, Lewiston, Pocatello and Hailey in Idaho.
This is no way to run an air traffic control system.
The FAA skipped just about every procedure required by law in its haste to get the towers shut down April 7. There was no assessment of the environmental impacts. No cost-benefit analysis. And, most importantly, no analysis of the safety implications.
If keeping the airport safe for the individual and corporate owners of the 250 aircraft based at Felts seems inconsequential for most Spokane residents, think again. Northwest MedStar Critical Care bases its air ambulances at the field. The helicopter owned by the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office is kept there, as are aircraft of the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol.
The field is the emergency command post for local, state and federal law enforcement. It’s too early to tell how or where all those assets and operations might be redistributed.
This need not happen.
Towers like that at Felts are operated by contractors who provide the service at one-third the cost of FAA towers at major airports that handle more and bigger aircraft 24/7. The total cost is $143 million out of an FAA budget of $15 billion. Contracts are let by region. The estimated cost of manning the Felts tower is $450,000 per year.
Kansas Republican Sen. Jerry Moran attempted to get $50 million from one FAA account redirected to tower operations as part of the budget resolution passed by Congress last week. The moneywould have kept the towers open through September, when a new budget year begins.
Moran’s amendment did not come up for a vote but, late Friday, a similar measure was introduced by Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal, with Sen. Maria Cantwell and Moran among the co-sponsors, that would fund the towers through 2018.
Spokane International Airport leadership, which has responsibility for Felts, was in Washington, D.C., last week leading the fight for the small airport towers. Airport Director Larry Krauter personally delivered a letter to FAA Administrator Michael Huerta on behalf of the airports listing the defects in its decision to close the towers.
The Spokane airport board is seeking a stay of the Felts closure until it has been reviewed by the courts.
In a petition filed with the FAA on March 13, the board called the closures “one of the most significant proposed changes to the national air space in recent history.”
The FAA would take off without the necessary preflight checks. What responsible pilot would do that?