“We followed a massive checklist to open this tower in 1999,” says Penna. “It took months to get everything right, including letters of agreement with other facilities and two meetings with local pilots. Now we're not doing anything. There's no checklist.”
In its March 27 letter, the FAA says it has “worked to ensure that the airport environment remains safe as we make the transition” and that “many air carriers operate at non-towered airports today and use non-towered airports as diversion airports.”
A key transition problem with airports such as Salisbury and Martin State, a general aviation and Maryland Air National Guard (ANG) airport 15 nm north of the Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, will be the high number of GA operations taking place. The ANG flies A-10 Thunderbolts and C-27J Spartans from the GA airport, which also is home to several corporate flight departments, including Black & Decker and Lockheed Martin.
“If you switch to CTAF [common traffic advisory frequency], the most dangerous aspect is military aircraft mixing with general aviation,” said a controller on duty at Martin State March 26. “We have A-10s coming into the initial approach at 280-300 kt. and we have gyrocopters and vintage aircraft flying at 60-70 kt. on final.” That facility's tower is set to close April 21.
Similar issues with commercial aircraft occur at Salisbury. “A lot of what we do here is train pilots,” says Penna. “If you take me out of the equation, that commercial pilot has to anticipate what that knucklehead who is just learning how to fly is going to do. He could be lining up on the wrong runway or cutting in front of a Dash 8 on final approach.”
Administrators of the contract tower program see the FAA's actions as political posturing to force Congress to reverse the mandatory sequestration cuts. “It doesn't take a rocket scientist to realize that if you close 149 towers there are going to be safety problems,” says Spencer Dickerson, president of the American Association of Airport Executives. That organization has managed the contract tower program for the FAA since its launch 30 years ago, with Dickerson involved throughout.
“In 30 years, we have closed three contract towers,” says Dickerson. “Now we're closing 149 in one month. The whole thing is nonsensical. Aviation safety should not be politicized.”
Cutting contract towers also appears political in light of a 2012 Transportation Department Inspector General's report that concluded contract towers offer the same services as federal facilities but at a lower cost and “significantly lower number and rate of safety incidents.”
The FAA in a March 5 letter to airports stated that it would eliminate funding for 189 contract towers—those at locations with fewer than 150,000 total operations per year and fewer than 10,000 commercial operations per year, unless the facility could demonstrate a “negative impact to the national interest” from the closure. National interest exemptions were considered for key reliever airports for large hubs, facilities with national security importance or where closure could cause widespread economic impact. Salisbury reported 6,700 commercial operations in 2012 out of a total of 50,000. Commercial operations include US Airways Express's average of 13 arrivals or departures per day and FedEx's six Cessna Caravans operating daily. US Airways also performs line and heavy maintenance on the Bombardier Dash 8s at the airport.