Avoid “insanity”; Congress should revise the FAA Air Traffic Control Tower’s formula NOW

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The case FOR keeping open some of Air Traffic Control Towers (ATCT) with federal support has been made here, before courts, by the Governmental Accountability Office, by the Office of the Inspector General, in documents submitted to the FAA, through FAA’s rationales, and in Congressional Hearings. All of that history avoids the need to repeat again the technical substance in support of federal dollars being authorized and appropriated for the operation of these ATCTs. The initiation of the debate by AAAE/USCTA and their allies AGAIN suggests that rather than repeat legislative battles, the long term solution is to revise the FAA formula.

In a number of complex, arguably subjective, exercises of its authority (airport discretionary funding is a prime example), the FAA creates a formula composed of “hard numbers” to make the decision ministerial, rather than subject to debate. One such power involves its decision to close, contract out or provide funds for ATCT. The elements of that “calculus” need to be revisited.

The FAA’s own economists have developed an analytical tool which starts with hard data (such as numbers of take offs and landings and ATC salary cost) and runs them through a formula. That preset calculation consistently assigns weights to certain values (safety primarily, but others are included). The choice of those “multipliers” involves decisions with both scientific and artistic judgments. The end result of this methodology is some form of Cost/Benefit Ratio. That quantification provides a “judgmental scale” and it separates ATCTs into the major decision classes.

The historic problem has been that ATCTs at the bottom of this list, those doomed to closure or other negative decisions, have been successful in their Congressional fight against the FAA. The legislative votes have consistently overturned the administrative actions.

Characteristically, the Administration fights back, using its objective analysis as proof of the wisdom of its decision. The 2015 FAA Reauthorization and/or the FY16 Appropriations bills will include amendments crafted by AAAE/USCTA to preserve the endangered towers. Many, many Members will become co-sponsors of and vote for the pro-tower language. They are obviously convinced by the ATCT proponents’ statements of the towers’ benefit to the local economy and national safety.

Chairman Shuster, who has made it clear that long term solutions, not band aids, should be receptive to a proposal which FIXES the FAA formula. Should safety be more heavily weighted in the FAA’s algorithm? If airports have some economic benefit to the national economy, should not that factor receive a higher policy multiplier? Etc.? It is highly likely that AAAE/USCTC knows what elements cause worthy towers to be downgraded.

It is very likely that the Administration’s closure list will go down in flames in Congress again. Even after that repeated debate, the next OMB review of the FAA’s budget, plus perhaps the DoT/FAA budget wizards’ drafts, will try one more time to whack these annoying, but expensive towers. The analysts believe, based on their finely honed tool, that these ATCTs should be closed. That repetition will cease ONLY if Congress deletes or adjust the analytical elements which “justify” the recommendations so unpopular with politicians. 

It is said that Einstein said that “[t]he definition of insanity is repeating the same mistakes over and over again and expecting different results.” Sounds like Albert’s wisdom applies to the ATCT debate.

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