Friday, March 29, 2013

"Contact the Tower..."

The Air Traffic Control Tower (ATCT) at my more northerly "home 'drome", Sikorsky Memorial Airport (KBDR), is scheduled to close on or about the 5th of May due to the funding cut-off known as "sequestration". The closure seems to be for an indeterminate period. After Cinco de Mayo, KBDR will become a non-towered field.

The tower at KBDR is one of well over 100 "contract towers" that the FAA is standing down to save money. Arguably, some towers that are to be closed are in fact busier than some FAA-staffed towers that will remain open. But the plug can be pulled on the contractor operations with far less bureaucratic fallout than would ensue if the jobs of Federal employees were affected. The half-dozen or so controllers at KBDR, employees of Midwest Air Traffic Control Service, Inc. who I hold in high regard, will be out of work.

It has been quite interesting to attend to the comments from various parts of the aviation community as the tower closures went from rumored to probable to inevitable. Many voices have been raised (some informed, some less so) to decry a predicted reduction in "safety" with the closing of these facilities. But a substantial part of the community is adopting a "Keep Calm and Carry On" attitude. In truth, pilots have always known how to operate around non-towered fields without undue risk and I am quite confident that operations will continue without a sudden epidemic of bent aluminum.

There are, however, two issues raised by the sequestration-related tower closures that have not been widely discussed. One is short term and operational in nature, the other is long term and can change the nature of the system in which we fly.

The tower at an airport like Sikorsky Memorial has two main functions that affect me in my comings and goings. The first and most important is to "control" local traffic, both on the ground and airborne, so as to maintain safe, orderly and expeditious use of the available runways. Traffic at a fairly low-volume field like KBDR, operating under non-towered field procedures, will no doubt become somewhat less expeditious, slightly less orderly, and (I contend) just about as safe. Pilots arriving and departing VFR (i.e., under Visual Flight Rules) should hardly notice the difference. But there may be a significant impact on pilots operating IFR (under Instrument Flight Rules) as N631S and I usually do, absent the tower's other normal function.

The control tower provides a link between the departing or arriving IFR pilot and Approach Control. The tower controller delivers your IFR clearance, obtains your release and sends you on your way. On arrival, it's the tower that cancels your IFR flight plan. Now, IFR pilots will need to interface directly with the TRACON to accomplish these things.

There is no reason that any of this needs to be a big deal. I do it routinely, interacting with Potomac Consolidated TRACON when departing or arriving at KVKX in the DC area. But – the TRACON's are going to be having some sequestration effects of their own. It's reported that controllers will be getting an unpaid day off per payroll period and that translates into fewer controllers on station and higher workloads for the ones on duty. So I expect that departing KBDR on a busy Friday afternoon in the summer when convective weather is rumbling around the area could become difficult. Problems picking up clearances and long waits for release may become the norm. I hope that a few weeks will suffice for development of "work-arounds" and for all the players to adapt.

The second issue that needs some discussion concerns the length of the tower shutdown. There is, I believe, a very significant probability that for many of the closing towers – and I think KBDR is one – the closure may be permanent. Here's the problem:

The chart above (you can click on it to make it readable) depicts annual airport operations at KBDR from 1994 (the year I got my Private Pilot's license) through 2012 with a trend line extending out another five years. The data is from the FAA's Air Traffic Activity System. In 1995 the field had 114,247 operations. Last year it had 61,911, a decline of 45.8%, and the trend line suggests a further drop to about 45,000 by 2017. There is some variability in the data but the long term trend is unmistakable...traffic at KBDR is going away.

I remember a sunny Sunday afternoon in 1995, when I was flying a Cessna 172N (N6583D, I believe) rented from the old Bridgeport Air Center. I'd departed KBDR, flown around for a while just enjoying the delightful day, done a couple of touch & go's at Oxford, then returned to Bridgeport. Arriving there, I found myself one of eight airplanes in the traffic pattern, a number of them students in closed traffic exhibiting shaky pattern discipline (not that I was so great at that point). The tower controller was holding on by his fingernails – but he was hanging on. Making right traffic for Runway 29, I was asked for a left 270 for spacing. An airplane arriving after me was told, "Remain clear of the Class Delta". I soon got my turn at the runway and was grateful for it.

That's the kind of day when you need a tower. Those kinds of days don't happen any more. In 1994 there were three active flight schools at KBDR. Today there is one (plus a few independent instructors). I really don't recall the last time there were more than two airplanes in the pattern while I was flying. The bottom line is that even after the budgetary kerfuffle that led to sequestration is over, it may be very difficult to justify re-opening the tower at KBDR given current traffic levels. And many more of the towers being closed this spring are likely to be in a similar situation. As a result, the once ubiquitous Class D tower may become a rarity.

After my next arrival at KBDR, N631S is going in for this year's Annual Inspection, which will take a couple of weeks. So it's quite possible that the next time I hear New York TRACON say, "Bridgeport is at your 12 o'clock, seven miles. Radar service terminated, contact Bridgeport tower on 120.9"...it will be the last time.