Who's Really To Blame for the FAA's Tower Closure Mess?

The decision to close scores of control towers was ill-conceived from the start. Here's where to assign blame, and where we should really look to save money.

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In the FAA's rush to shut down scores of the nation's contract control towers, nobody within the agency saw it necessary to perform a thorough analysis of the potential safety ramifications. Nor did the agency conduct a comprehensive cost-benefit analysis to consider, among other things, the millions of dollars it took to build the towers at the airports that will now lose them. Perhaps worst of all, there is no long-term plan in place for resuming services at affected towers. Once they're gone, well, who knows what happens next.

Actually, the FAA put out a helpful media “information” sheet just yesterday spelling out what will transpire at many of the towers that are now on the sequestration cutting block. It isn’t pretty.

According to the notice, 90 days after funding ends workers will show up in trucks “to begin disconnecting and removing equipment” from inside affected towers. That’s right, equipment the FAA has bought and paid for at towers that cost millions to build will be torn out and hauled away, all in the name of “saving” money. It's shades of Meigs Field, but this time the villain is the FAA instead of the mayor of Chicago.

How much money are we talking about? The FAA says closing the affected contract towers will reduce its budget by about $33 million in fiscal year 2013. Nowhere does the agency divulge the total bill to construct the towers (some of which are brand new) or to supply the equipment inside. The agency also chooses not to inform us that many FAA control towers which aren’t under the contract tower program actually handle less traffic than those slated for closure – yet the FAA’s own towers will stay open.

The FAA also doesn’t say that while it has cut about 5 percent of its budget in many other areas as a result of sequestration, it’s slashing a whopping 60 percent from the contract tower program, as 149 of 251 towers close.

The agency also says it has “worked to ensure that the airport environment remains safe” as we transition from towered to non-towered operations. How exactly? No study was undertaken. Rather, the FAA determined the transition will be safe because, well, lots of other airports operate without control towers and they seem to do OK. “Airports operate safely throughout the United States with and without towers.” That’s all the FAA has to say about safety in its media bulletin.

If there is an accident at one of the 149 affected airports, it will take many months for the NTSB to investigate. I’m guessing the probable cause will turn out to be “pilot error” and not “bureaucratic malfeasance.” Nobody within the FAA would be held accountable because there will be no real way to pin anything on anybody in Washington.

But should somebody be held accountable? Should somebody take the blame? Even before a single tower closes, the answer, of course, is yes.

And it isn’t Barack Obama or John Boehner or Harry Reid or Paul Ryan.

It’s Michael Huerta. The incoming FAA Administrator deserves the blame. Facing his first real crisis as agency head, he signed off on an ill-conceived plan that will save very little money in the grand scheme yet will exact a high price in terms of air traffic disruption, elimination of jobs, money wasted and, quite possibly, the loss of life should the unthinkable happen.

But let’s not even dwell on the issue of safety since this is a budget debate. Let’s look just at the dollars and cents instead.

As dubious claims are made about the wisdom of closing 149 contract control towers and the money this move ostensibly will save, Huerta’s multibillion-dollar NextGen project will happily continue to burn through taxpayer money, tallying millions in cost overruns plus inevitable delays that will tack on who knows how many millions more to the final bill.

NextGen is important and I'm sure it will be wonderful when all is said and done, but if Congress is really serious about saving money, here’s the place to start. Stop all work on NextGen and force the FAA to account for every dollar wasted.

After all, NextGen has a high probability of becoming a much bigger debacle than the contract tower mess we’re in now.