AOPA Brief in Court of Appeals Review of the FAA Decision to Defund Contract Towers Raises Serious Safety Issues

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ARTICLE: AOPA points to FAA’s flawed process to close control towers


In early March the Secretary, the Administrator and the COO of the FAA Air Traffic Organization announced that sequestration compelled eliminating federal funding of 189 Contract Control towers. After another review, the number of closures was reduced to 149 based on the application of some national standards, which did not include appropriate safety criteria.

Then, another FAA statement delayed the closure date to June 15 and documents released by the agency indicated that an internal Safety Management Systems review had been conducted. Under that assessment, the FAA said that there were no unacceptable risks created by the defunding of these towers. There were a limited number of private representatives asked to attend these meetings. One was the air traffic controllers’ union, NATCA, and they filed a letter objecting to some of the FAA’s conclusions in the SMS review.

Several airports filed petitions for review of the FAA’s decision in US Courts of Appeals. Briefs were filed in a consolidated proceeding. One of those documents was an amicus, filed by the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association. AOPA was one of the private representatives invited to attend the SMS review. Their pleading documents the views of one association which was present during the SMS discussions and which is before the Court of Appeals.

Excerpts of the AOPA brief are most compelling. Among the relevant observations are the following statements:

  • The FAA ATO’s decision was “arbitrary, capricious, and fundamentally flawed, leaving the safety and efficiency consequences largely unknown.”
  • “The decision to close certain towers, AOPA stated, was, ‘based solely on the number of operations conducted at the airport and how that number affects the traveling public. The FAA’s application of this singular standard fails to take into account the many considerations given to establishing and maintaining each of these towers.’ ”
  • “Specifically, AOPA said that the FAA overlooked ‘the management of (aircraft) approaching, landing, and departing the airport, the access to the airport, any accident and incident avoidance measures on and in the vicinity of the airport, the local and national impact on traffic diverted to other airports, the public’s health and welfare, the public interests, and environmental impact changes.’ ”
  • “’The FAA belatedly drafted a document purporting to evaluate the safety implications of its decision to close a significant number of contract towers,’ AOPA stated. ‘The FAA gave little or no consideration to hearing from the users of these airports, most notably the pilots, as to the impacts that may be felt.’”

These quotes are direct lifts from the AOPA press release, because they are so strong in their unabridged version. The Court will definitely read this brief with interest.

As a matter of full disclosure, the author submitted a declaration in support of one of the requests for a stay. The above information is all available to the general public.

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