Deficit Fight Could Force Tower Closures

Crisis looms as ATC facilities face Jan. 1 shutdowns

Air Traffic Control Tower
Air Traffic Control Tower

Have you heard the term “sequestration” in the news lately? It’s a jargony description for the automatic, across-the-board budget cuts that are scheduled to take effect next year unless politicians work out a deal to slash the federal deficit. The FAA will be caught up in this fiscal belt-tightening, to the tune of more than $1 billion that would immediately be slashed from its budget. If that happens, some warn, work on NextGen could grind to a standstill and scores of control towers around the country could be forced to shut down.

Sequestration is the doomsday plan outlined in Congress' 2011 Budget Control Act, which creates mechanisms for automatic reigning in of spending if a political deal fails to materialize. If this scenario plays out, funding for 250 control towers, 1,200 air traffic controllers and 600 safety inspectors would vanish on March 1 of next year. The FAA, of course, couldn't allow that to happen, and so would have to divert money from other places (NextGen technology expenditures being a logical choice) to keep towers at the nation's busiest airports open.

But analysts predict the FAA would still come up short and be forced to close towers at smaller airports – you guessed it, the same airports we general aviation pilots use day in and day out.

On July 31, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker John Boehner reached a deal to keep the government funded at current levels through March 2013. Originally, sequestration measures were scheduled to take effect after Jan. 1. The full Congress will likely vote on the resolution in September.

If there’s a silver lining in all of this, it’s that no politician will want to face the fallout from tower closures in his or her home district – not to mention all the other government cuts brought by the sequestration blade – meaning there will be enormous incentives for lawmakers to work out a compromise before the end of the year. If not, things could get ugly fast. Stay tuned.