Dickerson says the FAA received more than 1,000 submissions from people seeking exemptions for their airports. The agency eventually selected 24 of those facilities for continued funding due to “national interests” and an additional 16 that would stay open due to congressional set-asides. “The question is, did they do a safety review—a process that takes months?” asks Dickerson. “We don't have any indication they did any of that. A lot of people are going to sue the FAA over this.”
The Spokane (Wash.) Airport Board did just that, filing a lawsuit on March 25 that asks a federal appeals court to review the FAA's decision to deny the board's request for an exemption to keep the contract tower funded at Felts Airfield, a facility it owns and operates.
“From our perspective, the closures are firm unless the airport operator obtains the funding to stay open locally, or unless there are court orders or other actions to stay the closures,” the FAA tells Aviation Week.
Dickerson says it is possible that local and state funding could rescue some towers. If private funding exists, the FAA has an option for towers to be converted to “non-federal” status, tailoring operational hours and staffing to available budgets and possibly keeping government-owned equipment in place. If no funding surfaces, the agency says it will begin “disconnecting and removing” equipment 90 days after shutdown.
The balkanization of the air traffic network is counter to the action wrought in the 1970s and 1980s, when the FAA brought a large number of non-federal towers back under its control in order to standardize operations, says Dickerson.
If the towers do close, Dickerson says, 750-1,000 controllers will lose their jobs; 75-80% of that group are veterans who learned their craft in the U.S. military. “Veterans are getting thrown out on the street,” he says.
Penna points out that most controllers are well above the 31-year-old maximum age limit for entering into FAA controller training. He jokes that he is not sure what WalMart he'll be working at come May 5.
Up until that time, he and his staff will stay at their stations. “It's like the band continuing to play as the Titanic went down,” says controller John Snider, an ex-military controller who has worked with Penna at Salisbury for 17 years. “Everyone is going to get fantastic service right up until we close.”
Tap on the icon in the digital edition of AW&ST for a map of the 149 federal contract ATC towers being closed by the FAA, or go to AviationWeek.com/towers