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TOWERING IRRELEVANCE
By Joe Brancatelli
March 27, 2013 --Ivory-tower academics and yapping Washington politicians are jumping ugly over the closure of 149 air-traffic control towers beginning on April 7, but the sequestration-inspired shutdowns will be virtually invisible to business travelers.

Honest, fellow travelers, unless you fly your own aircraft or are important enough to commute by private jet, your life isn't likely to change when the Federal Aviation Administration shutters the towers at the small- and medium-sized airports on the instantly infamous hit list.

After all, have you ever been to Witham Field in Stuart, Florida (hint: the three-letter code is SUA) or Stillwater Regional (SWO) in Oklahoma? Did you even know there was an airport in Oxnard (California) or Olympia (Washington)? And if you knew that there was an airport named after hometown hero Arnold Palmer in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, I'm thinking you're an aging golf fanatic or once clicked a stray link after googling why the number 33 appears on bottles of Rolling Rock beer.

Or let me put it statistically: Only about a dozen of the 149 airports that stand to lose their towers next month even host scheduled commercial air service. At least one of them (Punta Gorda, Florida) has averaged fewer than two departures a day in the last 12 months.

One other thing: It'll be business as usual at all 149 airports when the towers close. Commercial carriers say their scheduled flights will continue unabated. In fact, traffic at the soon-to-be-towerless airports is so light that the alternate procedures (pilots radio each other to coordinate take-offs and landings) are no different than those used every day at the vast majority of the nation's approximately 5,000 public airports.

Politics make strange flying companions
Why all the hand-wringing about the closures? Politics, mostly. Local communities that stand to lose their airport towers believe they will take an economic hit. Private pilots, who paid a pretty penny to learn to fly, don't like losing the towers, either.

Then there are Congressional Republicans. The March 1 sequester, which neither party claims to have wanted but both sides voted for in 2011, requires the FAA slash $627 million from its $16 billion budget by the end of the current fiscal year on September 30. But cutting budgets, something Republicans have shrilly demanded President Obama do since he took office in 2009, is less fun when your home state gets whacked.

"The FAA must reevaluate its decision and the White House must put an end to its political charades," thundered Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, a Republican from Wisconsin, which is losing eight towers. Three towers will close in Pennsylvania, infuriating Pennsylvania Republican Bill Shuster, who chairs the House Transportation Committee. He and Sen. John Thune (R-SD) are demanding more data about the closures from Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

But the logic of the closures is apparent: All 149 are what the FAA calls "contract towers," staffed and operated by outside suppliers. They can be shuttered quickly compared to towers manned by FAA employees. Those facilities are unionized and the union's contracts call for one year's notice before a tower can be closed.

There doesn't seem to be a whiff of red state/blue state politics, either. Only 67 towers are in red states that voted for Mitt Romney last November. The majority (82) are in blue states that voted for President Obama. Florida, blue in 2012, is losing the most towers (14) of any state. Texas (red in 2012) will lose 13 and California (blue) will have 11 shut. And the busiest airport losing a control tower—Central Illinois Regional (BMI), serving the communities of Bloomington and Normal—is in the home state both President Obama and Transportation Secretary LaHood.

"Politically, we're against tower closures because it resonates in the districts," the legislative aide to a Republican congressman told me over the weekend. "Budgetarily, closing towers makes sense. It's the kind of thing we should cut if we're serious about deficit reduction."

If they don't come, close it
The closures make aviation sense, too. Bloomington-Normal, for instance, handled just 4,656 commercial departures in the 12 months between December 2011 and November 2012, says the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. That's about 10 percent fewer than the previous year and an average of around 13 outbound flights a day. BMI's daily passenger load? Just 1,337.

Even that is nine times the 145 daily passengers using the airport in Texarkana, Arkansas, which will also lose its contract tower. It handled just 1,041 commercial departures between December 2011 and November 2012, ranking it 463th busiest airport in the nation. Meanwhile, only about 44 passengers a day use Mississippi's Tupelo Regional, which loses its tower, too.

Then there's the matter of Punta Gorda, Florida, just 24 driving miles from Fort Myers and bustling Southwest Florida International Airport. According to the Punta Gorda website, the airport is home to just one commercial carrier, Allegiant (NASDAQ: ALGT), a niche player that hauls leisure travelers from Snow Belt cities such as Toledo, Ohio; Fort Wayne, Indiana; and Plattsburgh, New York. And federal statistics show that Punta Gorda and Allegiant hosted only about 375 passengers a day in the last year. If Allegiant doesn't want to fly planes into Punta Gorda when the control tower closes, Fort Myers is more than capable of handling the extra load.

Ditto for Tweed New Haven Regional in Connecticut. It has just one commercial carrier (US Airways Express), flights to a single destination (Philadelphia) and it handled only about 200 passengers a day between December 2011 and November 2012. Should commercial flights stop at New Haven when its tower closes, business travelers can always head 45 minutes away to Bradley International in Hartford, served by nine airlines.

The potentially flightless New Haven 200 also have another choice: Head down Interstate 95 to New York City. I'm reliably informed that New York has a few airports, several zillion flights a day—and 24/7 air-traffic control towers.

ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.

THE FINE PRINT This column is Copyright © 2013 American City Business Journals. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2013 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.