CHICAGO – Airport operators are mounting a legal challenge to the Federal Aviation Administration's decision to cut funding for 149 air traffic control towers, accusing the agency of violating federal law meant to ensure major changes at airports do not erode safety.
Several airports are now asking a federal court to halt the plan and compel the FAA to more carefully study the potential safety impact, said Carl Olson, director of the Central Illinois Regional Airport in Bloomington, Ill. He warned that without a more cautious approach, lives will be put at risk by cuts that he contends are arbitrary and the result of reckless political brinkmanship in Washington.
"I think everybody's going to realize what the industry knows, and that is there is a razor thin margin of error in aviation and any diminishment of safety is going to have an immediate and cascading effect," Olson said in an interview Friday. "And all the talk to the contrary won't change that fact."
Olson's airport is among the latest to file a lawsuit this week with the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Washington. The others are Spokane Airports in Washington state, and the operators of Florida airports in Naples, Ormond Beach and Punta Gorda. The court combined the suits into a single case Thursday.
FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said Friday that the agency could not comment on the pending litigation.
The agency's administrator, Michael Huerta, has stressed that safety remains the FAA's top priority even as it is forced by the budget cutting known as sequestration to trim $637 million for the rest of the fiscal year that ends Sept. 30.
The FAA said it had no choice but to subject most of its 47,000 employees, including tower controllers, to periodic furloughs and to close air traffic facilities run by contractors at 149 small airports with lighter traffic. The first of those closures will happen April 7. Olson's airport is slated to lose its funding May 5.
The tower shutdowns will not mean that airports have to close. All pilots are required to know how to land at un-towered airports and to practice those procedures, which include communicating with other pilots over a shared radio frequency.
But airport directors, pilots and others in the aviation sector say stripping away an extra layer of safety during the most critical stages of flight will elevate risks and at the very least slow years of progress that made the U.S. aviation network the safest in the world.
Lawrence Krauter, director of Spokane International Airport, said he expects more airports and possibly trade associations to join the legal challenge. He said the tower closures amount to one of the most significant changes to the national air system's safety network in recent history and deserve to be studied carefully.
"No one's going to tell you ... that there aren't some contract towers out there that could be closed," Krauter said. "What we're saying is that we think that there needs to be a more reasoned and appropriate process."
Spokane's second and smaller airport, Felts Field, is set to lose its tower funding May 5. Like many of the airports losing funding, it has a busy flight school and serves the area's medical air evacuation operation in addition to handling private aircraft.
Local airport authorities have been scrambling to find the money to keep their towers running once the federal funding runs out. And several of the airport operators wrote to Huerta to ask that he halt the plans and detail exactly what study and review processes, if any, the FAA has carried out.
Olson said he's gotten no response and suspects that no substantive review has been conducted.
"We're not aware of any," Olson said. "There doesn't appear to be any consideration for the individual operations, safety or environmental consequences."
The lawsuits specifically mention the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires extensive review of any airport changes, as well as the Safety Management Systems protocols requiring thorough risk analysis that the FAA must carry out.
"That requirement is not excused" by the budget cuts, Olson said.