Cross-posted courtesy of The Philadelphia Inquirer
America's aviation system is the largest and the safest in the world, and at the U.S. Department of Transportation, we work around the clock to keep our nation flying safely.
As we undergo the difficult process of making drastic, across-the-board budget cuts required by Congress under so-called sequestration, we will not deviate from our safety mission.
It's important to remember that these cuts were never meant to go into effect. Sequestration was intended by Congress to force action on the deficit - not ever to become law. So it's no surprise that these cuts are painful.
The FAA is cutting costs by furloughing employees, instituting a hiring freeze, slashing travel, and significantly cutting contracts.
As part of that effort, the FAA must close 149 air-traffic control towers around the country that are run by contractors. These towers control traffic at airports with lower activity levels. Together, they handle less than 3 percent of commercial operations nationally, and less than 1 percent of air passengers.
It was a difficult decision to close these towers and others across the nation. We know they are important to the communities they serve. But sequestration requires blunt fiscal cuts and leaves us with little discretion.
What we refuse to sacrifice, however, is safety.
The FAA is committed to helping these 149 airports and airfields continue to operate safely.
To be clear, closing a control tower does not mean an airport must close. Today, the vast majority of airports across the country do not have air-traffic control towers, yet aircraft safely land and take off at these airports every day, using specific procedures that are familiar to pilots.
Almost all of the control towers on the FAA closure list don't currently operate at night. Pilots are accustomed to using standard safety procedures when flying into these airports after hours.
Going forward, at many of the airports where contract towers are slated to close, pilots may rely on the guidance of FAA controllers at nearby radar facilities to make sure they maintain a safe distance from other aircraft when nearing the airport. Just before landing, pilots will switch to a universal radio frequency to communicate directly with all pilots in their area. This will alert nearby pilots that an aircraft is landing and they must stay clear of the runway.
After landing and arriving at the gate, the pilot will notify a controller at a nearby facility that it is safe to allow another aircraft to get in line to use the runway. This "one in, one out" method of regulating the flow of air traffic is safe. However, it's not efficient and may cause delays.
The FAA is working to reduce the impact on the majority of everyday travelers. But with a fiscal environment that is constrained in the long run, we are making difficult decisions about how to offer the best air-traffic services to the largest number of people, both now and in the future.
Closing contract towers is not something we are doing lightly. Communities still have the option to keep their towers open if they are able to provide the funding, and the FAA stands ready to help with this kind of transition.
Above all, the FAA is committed to maintaining this nation's extremely safe aviation system. While we make difficult budget decisions, safety is not up for negotiation.