WASHINGTON -- The government has been using 30-year-old data on aircraft collisions to justify the cost of operating control towers at small airports even though accident rates have improved significantly over that time.
Had the Federal Aviation Administration used more current data, it's probable that some low-traffic airport towers operated by private contractors would no longer have met the agency's criteria for funding, industry officials said. But the FAA has long been under pressure from members of Congress to open new towers at airports in their states, not close them.
The FAA began paying contractors to staff and operate towers at a handful of small airports after President Ronald Reagan fired striking air traffic controllers in 1981. Today, there are 251 towers operated by private contractors at airports across the country at an average cost to the Federal Aviation Administration of about $500,000 a year each. Since the program began, only three contractor-operated towers have been shut down, according to a trade association for the companies that operate the towers.
On Sunday, 24 of the towers are to be shut down, the first wave of 149 tower closures over the next several weeks that Obama administration officials have said are necessary to accommodate government-wide automatic spending cuts required by Congress. The decision to shut down the contractor-operated towers at this time is unrelated to the FAA's use of obsolete safety data to justify the contract tower program. In recent years, the program has cost about $140 million annually.
In 1990, the FAA developed a complicated cost-benefit methodology for the tower program that relies on accident data from 1983 to 1986 to determine how many accidents would be averted and lives saved if an airport had controllers working onsite. As the years have passed, the FAA has updated some of the economic assumptions used in the methodology.
The safety data, however, has never been updated. In 1983, there were 10.7 accidents for every 100,000 departures involving small planes, business jets and other non-airline flights in the U.S., according to the National Transportation Safety Board. By 2011, the latest year for which figures are available, that rate had dropped to 6.5 accidents per 100,000 departures. The commercial airline accident rate dropped from 0.42 per 100,000 departures to 0.34 per 100,000 over the same period. But those numbers mask a spectacular decline in fatalities. There have been no airline accident fatalities in the U.S. in more than four years, the longest period without fatalities since the dawn of the jet age half a century ago.
"None of the formulas have been updated since 1990, despite a very significant change in the aviation operating environment and the general aviation and commercial accident rates," the FAA said in a statement Thursday in response to questions from The Associated Press. "The FAA is in the process of updating this policy."
Agency officials offered no explanation for the oversight.
In particular, the FAA didn't update its assumptions on the number of collisions between two aircraft on the ground or in the air that might be avoided through staffing control towers. Advances in aviation safety technology on planes have virtually eliminated collisions between commercial planes and reduced collisions between other types of aircraft.
"The FAA methodology likely overestimates present-day collisions," the Congressional Research Service said in a recent report.
Initially the cost-benefit ratios were to be recalculated every two years, but that didn't happen, said David A. Byers, an aviation professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and a consultant to the companies that operate the towers. If they were recalculated now, some airports would certainly fall below the FAA threshold for funding, he said.
Of the nation's 5,000 public airports, only about 10 percent have control towers. Those without towers generally have relatively few flights, and pilots coordinate takeoffs and landings among themselves.
The towers are prized by local communities as economic boosters, particularly in rural areas. Airlines are sometimes reluctant to schedule flights to airports where there are no air traffic controllers onsite. And flight schools generally prefer to locate at airports with towers so student pilots can practice communications procedures.
Former Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., a critic of the contract tower program, said he refused to allow lawmakers to insert provisions into bills requiring the FAA to pay for new control towers at airports in their districts when he was chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
"We couldn't always stop it in all instances in the appropriations process, particularly when a bill comes from the Senate and it has a designation of funding for a particular tower," Oberstar said.
Last month, Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., repeatedly tried to hold up final passage of a bill to prevent a government shutdown as he tried unsuccessfully to persuade Democrats to allow a vote on his plan for erasing most of the planned closures of towers operated contract controllers.
Next week, Moran and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., plan to introduce a bill to require the FAA to resume operations at the 24 towers scheduled for closure on Sunday and to prohibit the agency from shutting down any more towers after that.
The measure has the support of the American Association of Airport Executives and its affiliate organization, the U.S. Contract Tower Association, which represent the companies that operate contract towers. The associations filed a lawsuit with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit on Thursday seeking to block the FAA from taking action. Several airports around the country also have filed their own suits.
The suit contends that the FAA didn't follow its own procedures for shutting down the airport towers, and unfairly targeted the program for an outsized share of the more than $600 million the agency is required to trim from its budget by the end of September.
"The administration has decided to make tower closures the poster child of sequestration (automatic spending cuts)," J. Spencer Dickerson, executive director of the contract tower association said. "We believe there are other ways they could have skinned this cat."
But Oberstar said regional air traffic control facilities can handle most of needs of aircraft arriving and departing small airports.
"The hoopla about 149 towers being cut I think is misplaced," he said. "I'm rather skeptical about those crying wolf."
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said in a joint statement Thursday that the FAA is conducting "a robust safety review and monitoring process to identify any hazards, and develop appropriate risk mitigations" associated with the tower closures.
"While we make difficult budget decisions, safety is not up for negotiation," the statement said.