The Federal Aviation Administration announced Friday the list of which smaller air traffic control towers it’s closing due to sequestration. Eleven towers will be closed in California – among them, towers in Fullerton, Riverside, Lancaster and Oxnard. The FAA is closing 149 air traffic control towers across the nation due to federal budget cuts. Pilots and airport officials are concerned losing the towers will make flying in the region less safe.
Brian Watt took flight from the Hawthorne Airport – which was not on the final closure list, to see how the tower system works. Below is his first-person account:
We took a flight from one of the airports on the list to check out the skies over L.A. Just after take-off from Hawthorne Airport, we can immediately see to the north large commercial airliners on their final approach to LAX.
Hawthorne air traffic controller: "Cessna 78 Delta. Contact L.A. Tower. 1-1-9 point 9"
Pilot Patrick Carey: "78 Delta. 19-8. Have a good day."
Our pilot is Patrick Carey. As his Cessna four-seater reaches the end of Hawthorne’s airspace, an air traffic controller in Hawthorne’s Tower turns him over to the tower at LAX.
"We’re at what’s called the 'South Reporting Point,'" said Carey. "It’s an X on the ground where the 405 and Hawthorne Boulevard cross."
At 2,500 feet off the ground, Carey is taking us on a short ride over LAX into the Santa Monica airspace and back. He gets a heads up from a controller at LAX about a plane flying nearby.
LAX Controller: "Traffic heading to your right. 1,500 westbound: type and intentions unknown."
Patrick Carey: "Roger, we’ll look for the traffic westbound."
Carey spots the plane and as our flight continues, he explains the complex airspace of several designated routes and altitudes for different types of aircraft. In addition to commercial airlines, we pass a TV helicopter, an L.A. Sheriff's Department helicopter and get close to the Goodyear blimp. The short trip from Hawthorne to Santa Monica and back means Carey talks to four different FAA control towers.
"It’s all orchestrated well, as long as they can talk to controllers," said Carey. "If L.A. is short controllers, sometimes they shut down these routes."
Carey said if one of the four towers he was communicating with during our flight would break the chain of communications that exists, it would just create confusion.
Carey is a retired army pilot who flew missions in the Vietnam war. He owns a flight academy and is the chairman of the Southern California Airspace Users Working Group. In his office on the ground, he says none of the towers at small airports in the Los Angeles area should close. The Fullerton airport, for example, is a helicopter base for the Orange County Fire Department, the California Highway Patrol and the Anaheim Police Department.
"As little as that airport is, and while it could function as a non-tower controlled airport, it’s key to a lot of safety functions here in the L.A. area," said Carey.
The FAA would not comment on safety matters in a specific area, but FAA administrator Michael Huerta has said he wants to close the towers with the smallest impact on the traveling public.
In looking for places to cut its budget for sequestration, Huerta has said his choices have been limited. He told Congress that closing the smaller towers that are staffed by private contractors would save $45 to $50 million this year.
Aviation consultant and analyst Michael Boyd disagrees. He said there are other places to make cuts and the FAA is targeting small towers to make a political statement.
"They will close the towers, they will gum up airports, they will lay off controllers, all to make the point that these cuts are so deep and they have been forced on us," said Boyd. "That approach is not honest."
The FAA will begin a four-week phased closure of the 149 federal contract towers beginning on April 7.