Air traffic control towers closing: Congress cuts on airplane safety


The debt of the United States federal government grows every day at an exuberant rate. Naturally, government officials and citizens alike endlessly debate about potential solutions to the problem. Usually, the bickering doesn’t create any positive results and it has yet to generate a conclusive resolution.

When someone proposes cutting Medicaid or defense spending, people scream about how the funding for those programs is necessary and cannot be cut. When tax hikes are put on the table, people who oppose say the government is too big and that the deficit problem must be met with spending cuts. It seems that the country is so divided that no matter what is proposed, there will be enough of an opposition for it to be shot down. So what happens when all the sensible options are stopped in their tracks? Non-sensible options are used to fill their place.

On March 22, a list was released of all the air traffic control towers that will be closing in the near future as a result of Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) budget cuts. The budget cuts were part of the sequester which went into effect earlier this year after Congress failed to pass an alternative to the automatic cuts. Some $85 billion was cut from the 2013 federal budget altogether and the FAA was forced to absorb $637 million of that according to Forbes. The response by the FAA was to close air traffic control towers at lowand moderate-traffic airports across the United States.

Since this announcement has been made, I have been talking to my friends and family—and anyone else who would listen to my rants—about the appalling issue. One question that seems to pop up frequently is whether or not the closing of an airport’s tower means that the airport itself will close. While the answer is no, it does mean that the airports are somewhat less safe than they currently are and have been.

An airport without a control tower is called an uncontrolled airport. This term might lead some to believe that the situation at these airports is chaotic and dangerous, but this is not the case. Aircraft flying within the airspace of uncontrolled airports communicate with each other over the common traffic advisory frequency (CTAF). On an airport’s designated CTAF frequency, pilots report their tail number (aircraft identification), position, and intentions at certain intervals while they are within the airspace and moving on taxiways and runways on the ground. At controlled airports, air traffic controllers direct traffic on the ground and in the air to maintain sufficient separation between aircraft so as to minimize the chance of a collision.

Uncontrolled airports are considered safe, but they tend to be smaller airports with relatively low traffic levels, so there is some legitimacy to the argument that the closing of towers will not cause significant safety hazards. Theoretically, if all pilots within the airspace of an uncontrolled airport follow proper and safe procedure, the risk to individuals is minimal (although still present, as is the case any time people board an aircraft). Nonetheless, no pilot is perfect and adding additional extra radio communications and collision-avoidance tasks makes airport operations more difficult and dangerous than they need to be.

The closing of air traffic control towers could be compared to the replacement of traffic lights with stop signs at 4-way intersections that tend to see moderate traffic levels. While it might not be considered blatantly dangerous to make this change, it does decrease the safety of everyone involved by putting traffic direction and separation in the hands of drivers. This comparison might make air traffic control cuts seem relatively unimportant, but a mid-air collision is much more likely to result in the death of pilots and passengers in both planes and of people on the ground than a lowspeed collision of two cars on the ground is.

With all of this considered, it does not seem logical, to me, for Congress or the FAA to allow these cuts to be made. In fairness, the cuts made by Congress were automatic and across-theboard, meaning that they did not specifically make cuts to the Department of Transportation, nor did they cut funding for the Department by more than anything else. As for the FAA, it insists that safety remains its top priority, according to CNN, and that they have no choice but to go ahead with the closings. Some airports, however, are suing the FAA over the closings according to Fox News. The multiple cases have been combined into one.

Congress’ failure to ensure that the FAA receives sufficient funds to maintain what is considered to be the world’s safest aviation network demonstrates its disregard for the value for human life. Despite the fact that the cuts were automatic, additional efforts should have been made to allocate resources to the Department of Transportation for the purpose of safety. The hit that the air traffic control system is taking is not only a threat to safety, but a signal to the country that something must change if the United States is to remain a major power. A country that cannot maintain its already lacking infrastructure is a decaying one. With crumbling roads, unsafe bridges that threaten to collapse at any moment, and, now, an insufficient air traffic control system, the United States is falling rapidly behind the other industrialized countries of the world. More importantly, these cuts warn us of an apparent nationwide attitude that petty partisanship and a relatively small amount of money are more important than the lives that will be lost as a result.