Wednesday, March 30, 2011

A Modest Proposal

The fuss over the...umm, unavailability of services from the KDCA tower one evening last week seems to continue unabated. Oh, what to do? At present we appear to be headed toward assigning two controllers on the midnight shift whose primary responsibility will be to keep each other awake while nothing else happens for hours.

A look at the data for KDCA for last night (courtesy of FlightAware.com) is presumably typical, and revelatory. From 11:30 PM to 6:30 AM local time, there were a grand total of four arrivals:

AWI3650 CRJ2 KCMH Wed 06:23 EDT
AAL1900 B738 KDFW Wed 01:00 EDT
AAL1012 B738 KMIA Wed 00:33 EDT
AWI3789 CRJ2 KPHL Wed 00:16 EDT
DAL1438 A320 KATL Wed 00:16 EDT
AAL532  B738 KORD Tue 23:41 EDT
UAL628  A320 KORD Tue 23:36 EDT
Of course, with the curfew in effect there were no departures during that period. We have two valuable FAA employees in the tower to manage four airplanes. This makes no sense at all.

The solution is simple. Close the tower from midnight to 06:00 AM local time! It's not like they're doing anything useful. The control tower's job is to ensure sequencing and separation on the runway when traffic levels rise to a point where alternate means of separation are not acceptable. When the airport is busy, local control from the tower is essential. When the airport is deathly quiet, the tower is absolutely unnecessary.

I "grew up" in aviation flying into and out of Sikorsky Memorial Airport (KBDR) in Stratford, CT. KBDR is a towered airport and the tower is closed from 0300Z until 1130Z the next morning. Arriving aircraft are handled by New York Approach, and released to the Common Traffic Advisory Frequency (CTAF) where they announce their positions and intentions. It all works; nothing unusual about it.

Sarah and her friends at Potomac Consolidated TRACON (PCT, aka "Potomac Approach") are entirely capable of keeping KDCA out of trouble in the wee hours of the morning. PCT will clear one airplane at a time into the airport, and put any succeeding aircraft into a hold until the landing aircraft cancels IFR or reports itself on the ground. No problem!

From the pilot's perspective, operating into a non-towered airport in a low traffic environment is straightforward. In fact, as long as the situation is normal and expected, it may be safer than a towered field with a single sleepy controller.

To sum up:

  • The tower's only function is to provide separation on the runway.
  • In periods of very low traffic, TRACON is equipped to discharge that responsibility.
  • The pilots just won't care.
  • Ergo, closing the KDCA tower from 2400 to 0600 local time is perfectly reasonable.
"But, wait!" (someone cries), "What about SECURITY!!"

Oh, come on. Think about it. The control tower has no meaningful role to play in the security aspects of the DC airspace. By the time an aircraft is told to "contact tower", there is no security issue. The integrity of the SFRA, the FRZ and the several Prohibited areas are in the hands of Potomac Approach. And they deal with that nonsense as well as any organization could.

So, Scott, how about it? Would a recommendation to close the KDCA tower in the wee hours fly?


== T.J.== said...

BEST suggestion I have heard on this topic! (I routinely fly into FL airports where control towers have std operating hours ... Seems to work just fine)

Frank Van Haste said...

Hi, T.J.!

Thanks for reading and commenting. Seems like a no-brainer to me, but I would not bet on the idea getting serious consideration. They have to cater to the know-nothings.

Best regards,