State Official Says Closure of Oklahoma ATC Towers Threatens Safety

The Federal Aviation Administration’s announcement this week that it is closing five air traffic control towers in Oklahoma next month and one in September due to budget cuts has state officials and others in the general aviation community greatly concerned about the safety of the flying public.

During a conference call on Tuesday, federal officials provided details of the tower closings, which will impact more than 200 facilities and communities across the U.S. including those in Ardmore, Enid, Lawton, Norman, Oklahoma City (Wiley Post Airport) and Stillwater. Other than Ardmore’s tower, which will close Sept. 30, the other locations around the state are set to close April 7. In addition, the overnight shifts for the towers at Will Rogers World Airport in Oklahoma City and Tulsa International Airport will be eliminated.

“The closing of air traffic control towers is extremely troubling to me and others within the aviation community because it jeopardizes air safety,” Victor Bird, director of the Oklahoma Aeronautics Commission said. “Eliminating air traffic control towers just to save a buck is not a wise thing to do. The risk is too great.”

Bird explained that the state’s general aviation airports, especially those whose towers are scheduled for closure play a vital role in the state’s air transportation system, such as OU Westheimer Airport in Norman, which also serves as a reliever airport for Will Rogers World Airport.

“We have thousands of take offs and landings every week at our 110 public airports, and each one, in its own right, provides access for many businesses that rely on general aviation aircraft to compete and grow their business. These are the same businesses that provide good-paying jobs in their respective communities,” Bird said, pointing to companies such as Michelin in Ardmore, Goodyear in Lawton, Groendyke Transport in Enid, Love’s Convenience Stores in Oklahoma City and Harrison Gypsum in Norman as prime examples.

“When the FAA or the Department of Transportation makes decisions that will endanger the lives of people in the air or on the ground, they need to step back and reconsider their options, especially when they have repeatedly stated that safety is their number-one priority,” Bird said.

Of the 238 air traffic control towers set for closure nationwide, 189 are part of the FAA’s Contract Tower Program, a program that the DOT’s inspector general repeatedly said is cost effective for American taxpayers. The average annual cost to operate a contract tower is $537,000 compared to $2 million for a FAA tower. The 251 contract towers in the U.S. handle about 28 percent of all tower traffic operations but account for just 9 percent of the FAA’s overall budget for tower operations. These closures amount to a 75 percent cut in the Contract Tower Program, grossly disproportionate to the other cuts FAA is making as a result of the sequester.

“Cutting such a cost-effective program that ensures safety in the skies makes no sense whatsoever,” Bird said.

Except for Will Rogers World Airport, Tulsa International Airport and R.L. Jones Airport in Tulsa, all of Oklahoma’s air traffic control towers are contract towers, meaning they are staffed by non-federal employees. The loss of those vital services could significantly compromise the safety of pilots who would no longer be able to communicate with the control tower but would have to rely on communication with other pilots in the air or on the ground to take off or land.

“The thing that concerns me the most is that student pilot attempting to land at Wiley Post Airport with business jets taking off and landing all around him or her. It could be very intimidating and a potentially dangerous situation,” Bird said. “You also have commercial flights going in and out of Lawton-Ft. Sill Regional Airport with scores of passengers and military personnel. I don’t even want to think about the possibilities there.”

Enid’s Woodring Regional Airport could see a significant reduction in training exercises from Vance Air Force Base since most military training missions require operational control towers. Aircraft responding to emergency situations such as wild fires, floods and medical emergencies will also be negatively affected, Bird said.

The tower closings are a result of sequestration that began March 1 which mandates the federal government trim $85 billion from its FY 2013 budget. For its part, the FAA was forced to cut about $600 million from its own budget. Bird urged Congress to come to a compromise so that these cuts to the Contract Tower Program would not occur.

In addition to the contract towers, the FAA announced it is shuttering 49 FAA-staffed towers. And it has notified most of its 47,000 employees that they will be furloughed one day each pay period throughout the rest of the fiscal year.