BRADENTON, Fla. - General aviation airport officials in Florida and across the country are preparing to discuss the implications of their tower closings Tuesday in a conference call with the Federal Aviation Administration, according to Bill Johnson, executive director of the Florida Airports Council.
As part of its mandate under sequestration, the FAA plans to eliminate funding for contracted control tower employees at 149 general aviation airports across the country, including 14 towers in Florida – the largest number in the country, followed by Texas and California. Florida also has the largest aviation grant program in the nation.
The loss of funding will shutter the towers unless local governments or state agencies come up with cash to keep them operating, and those types of requests have been made, Johnson said.
The closures will not shut down airport operations but could impact the ability of some pilots to use non-controlled facilities.
Most contract towers were constructed with a combination of funds from cities, counties, airport authorities and the state Department of Transportation, which could have included some bond financing, said Johnson.
The Airports Council has not analyzed how the infrastructure was funded, but the towers were constructed with the federal government’s promise to pay operating costs, which can run as high as $700,000 annually, Johnson said in an interview Monday.
“Some airports are going to ask cities or counties for enough money to continue to keep their towers open,” he said. “Several said that their cities did not have cash. Some have cash reserves.”
Some airports have appealed to the state of Florida for emergency assistance.
Since the FAA’s plan was announced, airport operators across the Sunshine State have participated in joint conference calls to discuss options for staying open, and the unknown process of shutting down tower operations.
Some have decided to join one of several federal lawsuits that have been consolidated in U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, seeking review of the FAA’s procedures.
Though the central issue is about safety should the control towers go dark, Johnson said communities are also concerned about economic issues, including the loss of new and existing tenants whose corporations prohibit flying into non-controlled airports.
“The closure of these air traffic control towers will reduce the overall margin of safety of our entire aviation system,” National Air Traffic Controllers Association President Paul Rinaldi said in a recent statement.
Rinaldi said air control towers also serve important functions at airports, such as medical transport flights, search and rescue missions, and supporting flight training schools.
While most general aviation airports cater to small aircraft and corporate jets, some like the Punta Gorda Airport in Charlotte County, Fla., also have commercial flights.
Funding for tower operations is slated to end April 21 at Punta Gorda where a new $4 million tower began operations in February 2012.
The Charlotte County Airport Authority board last week voted to participate in the national litigation against the FAA.