So what's the deal about the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) closing 149 FAA "contract" control towers? Will flying still be statistically safer than driving on our highways? Some facts to consider:
The FAA recognizes 19,786 landing facilities of all types across America. Within that number, the FAA says there are 5,171 public-use airports. Currently, only 10 percent of those public-use airports have air traffic control towers, meaning 90-percent of America's public-use airports depend on America's 617,128 licensed pilots to "traffic control" each other within what is acknowledged as the world's safest aviation system.
Recently, the FAA announced it will close 149 FAA "contract" towers. Why is the word "contract" in quotes? Approximately 50 percent of the FAA's control towers are staffed by FAA government employees. The other half are staffed under "contract" to private firms certified by the FAA. According to a recent study by the U.S. Department of Transportation, the annual operating cost of a FAA "contract" tower is $1.5 million dollars less than the annual operating cost of a tower staffed with unionized government employees.
For the most part, the "contract" towers are staffed with former or retired military air traffic controllers who are FAA-certified and willing to work for less and who are, for the most part, non-union.
Back to safety: In the absence of control towers, how do America's pilots manage to get in and out of all those non-towered airports so safely? They follow a simple system of rules-of-the-road, if you will. They are trained to talk to each other over a radio frequency - Common Traffic Advisory Frequency (CTAF) - assigned to each airport.
When a pilot gets within about 10 miles of an airport where he or she intends to land, the pilot uses the CTAF to let other pilots know his or her location relative to the airport. If the pilot intends to land, the pilot declares which runway he or she will use. If any other pilots are in the air or may be getting ready to take-off, they identify themselves; state their position and their intentions.
Think of it as a road intersection with a four-way stop sign. But, instead of hand gestures (sometimes rude) used by motorists to declare their intentions, the pilots employ (most often, polite) radio procedure to decide who is going to do what and when. Stone simple. Literally, hundreds of thousands of air operations are carried out safely each year using the CTAF method.
Would airports be safer with more control towers? Of course. And control towers are certainly needed at high-traffic metropolitan airports with airline service. Will the world end when the FAA closes 149 "contract" control towers? Of course, not. Almost all of the airports with commercial airline service will continue to enjoy their FAA government-employee control towers. But the negative financial impact on the families and on the businesses in the 149 communities that will lose their FAA "contract" towers will be severe.
Meanwhile, $764,825 will be spent on a study of how students use cell phones, $606,000 will go to a study of online dating, and $175,587 is being spent to study a link between cocaine and the mating habits of quail. Go figure.
Nationally syndicated columnist, William Hamilton, was educated at the University of Oklahoma, the George Washington University, the U.S Naval War College, the University of Nebraska, and Harvard University.