Out of Control

Written by Marilyn Hawkes Category: Valley News Issue: June 2013
Group Free

Sequestration will likely cost four Arizona airports their control towers. Is safety playing pawn to politics?

Imagine driving up to a busy intersection where there are no traffic signals and everyone is trying to communicate with each other by cell phone. That’s the analogy offered by Walter Fix, chief administrator at Glendale Municipal Airport, to describe the imminent closure of the facility’s air traffic control tower. “Who has the right of way?” he asks. “And, on top of that, make it three-dimensional at 100 miles per hour.”

In March, the Federal Aviation Administration notified 149 airports that federal funding for their air traffic control towers would be stripped as part of the agency’s $637 million national budget cuts under sequestration. Four Arizona regional airports – Phoenix Goodyear Airport, Glendale Municipal Airport, Ryan Field in Tucson and Laughlin/Bullhead International Airport – will be affected by the closures, which were to begin April 7 but have been delayed until June 15, per the FAA.

The tower closures have left many in Arizona – which is, according to the Federal Aviation Administration, one of the nation’s top five private-pilot hotbeds, with one registered aircraft per 665 residents – wondering about the future of aviation in the state, which already sees more than its fair share of crashes.

When the towers are closed, general aviation pilots will use pilot-to-pilot communication – via the common traffic advisory frequency (CTAF), instead of relying on air traffic controllers for guidance. This isn’t an exotic arrangement. Pilot-to-pilot is the norm at smaller, “untowered” airports, and after hours elsewhere. “Most [regional] airports don’t have a 24/7 control tower,” Fix adds. Still, the tower closure at Glendale is problematic for many reasons, including safety, proximity to Luke Air Force Base and revenue loss for the airport and surrounding businesses.

Jim Timm, executive director of the Arizona Pilot’s Association, says he’s concerned about general aviation traffic intruding into Luke Air Force Base airspace. “The Glendale tower reduces the potential for mid-air collision or conflict between military and general aviation aircraft in the vicinity of Luke,” he says. “Pilots will have to be very cautious.”

The financial impact for the city of Glendale could be huge, Fix says. Many companies use the Glendale airport to ferry executives to meetings and sporting events, but many corporations restrict their planes from flying into an untowered airport, he says. “This will put our businesses at a disadvantage.”

Phoenix Goodyear Airport – near Phoenix International Raceway – likely will also feel pinched, in the form of lost NASCAR and special event traffic. Flight schools will also be affected. At Phoenix Goodyear, the Airline Training Center Arizona (ATCA) trains pilots for Lufthansa Airlines, and for the German Air Force. ATCA accounts for approximately 85 percent of airport traffic and says it will move its operations if the tower is closed, according to a press release from the City of Phoenix.

Since 2002, Arizona has exceeded the national crash rate every year save one, according to an Arizona Republic study. In 2008, the state’s rate of 2.76 crashes per 100,000 flight hours was about twice the mean. Coupled with the fickle nature of our superheated summer air, and the number of novice pilots here, the tower closings could worsen the problem.

Timm, a 60-year aviation veteran, feels aviation is being used as a political pawn: “It bothers me that possibly people are going to have to die for [politicians] to make their point. I don’t want to see that happen.”

Other Arizona programs and institutions affected by the sequester:
• $17 million in funding cuts for primary and secondary education
• $10 million slashed from education for children with disabilities
• Loss of $2.1 million in environmental funding to ensure air quality and clean water
• More than $1 million trimmed from nutrition assistance for seniors
• About 10,000 civilian Department of Defense employees will be furloughed. Army base operations will be reduced by about $43 million, and Air Force operations in Arizona will be cut by close to $6 million
Source: whitehouse.gov