MILWAUKEE — As budget cuts force the Federal Aviation Administration to carve chunks out of the nation’s air traffic control system, the agency cannot touch a program that allocated $17.9 million for airport improvements on the Pacific island of Saipan. Or $9.4 million for soundproofing two elementary schools near Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport.
Yet, now air traffic controllers are being furloughed and 149 control towers are being closed — compromising air safety, some airport officials say.
The situation gets to the heart of the difficulty of cleaning up the nation’s fiscal mess: One person’s spending boondoggle is a crucial piece of someone else’s safety, quality of life or economic well-being.
“We’ve met the enemy and it’s us,” said Jeff Baum, CEO of Wisconsin Aviation, based in Watertown, who is also a pilot and vice chairman of the Air Charter Safety Foundation. “We want everything and we don’t want to pay for it.”
Says economist David J. Ward of NorthStar Consulting Group in Madison: “It’s not like everybody can look around and say it’s somebody else’s fault. The public has to decide which way we are going.
“In the last election, we decided to put the current (Democratic) administration back in the White House and the Republicans back in control of the House. That must mean something,” he said.
For now, it means we’re in for more political theater in Washington, D.C., while the nation’s air traffic control system shrinks as part of the FAA’s plan to meet the $637 million in cuts it’s been told to make under sequestration.
The U.S. air travel system is the safest anywhere. Baum said there are about 14,000 landing sites in the United States. Of those, about 5,000 are paved runways open for public use. About 500 of those have operating control towers.
The towers being eliminated are operated by private contractors.
“The vast majority of airports in America never had a control tower,” Baum said. “Can (small airports) operate without them? Absolutely.”
But the sequestration cuts would remove a layer of safety at airports where tower staffing is being eliminated.
At Waukesha County Airport, for example, student pilots are flying and landing in the same airspace as charter jets that are capable of cruising speeds approaching Mach 1, said airport director Kurt Stanich. He’s perplexed by the FAA decision to close towers, including his.
“It just doesn’t make sense to us, looking at the FAA the way we do as the ones who regulate safety and operations and pilot certifications, for them to go through and just cut a program like this,” he said. “An airport with an air traffic control tower provides a level of safety that you don’t get at an airport that’s without a control tower. We think that the FAA can make smarter cuts that don’t affect the safety of airplanes and navigation across the country. It doesn’t make sense.”
Peter Moll, airport director at Wittman Regional Airport in Oshkosh, said taking away his airport’s control tower “is almost like taking all the traffic signals away in town. Every intersection becomes uncontrolled and you have to slow down at least or stop and check for traffic. It just makes it a lot more difficult.”
The airport’s air traffic controllers, Moll said, are relied on to provide “that second set of eyes, even though pilots and ground vehicles have to keep an eye out for aircraft.”
Wittman is the site of the EAA AirVenture, which will take place from July 29 to Aug. 4. The event will draw thousands of people, and activity at the airport will make it among the busiest in the world. The EAA issued a statement Friday saying the event “will not be adversely affected” by the FAA decision.
Besides Wittman and Waukesha, control towers are to be eliminated at Timmerman Field in Milwaukee; Kenosha Regional Airport; Southern Wisconsin Regional Airport in Janesville; La Crosse Municipal Airport; Central Wisconsin Airport in Mosinee; and Chippewa Valley Regional Airport in Eau Claire.
The agency is still considering eliminating overnight shifts at 72 air traffic facilities, including at major airports such as Chicago’s Midway International and Mitchell International Airport in Milwaukee. There was no word Friday on when that decision will come.
Timmerman has 31,000 takeoffs and landings a year, while Waukesha County Airport has 57,000. Airports with fewer than 150,000 operations a year were targeted for tower closures. The six air traffic controllers at Timmerman and six at Waukesha County Airport face layoffs under the tower closing order.
The whole thought process that led to the cuts is messed up, Baum said.
“Clearly, no one is saying ‘OK, our funding is going to be cut by millions of dollars,’ ” he said. “ ‘Where can we become more efficient? Which programs do we really not need to be doing anymore?’ ”
The elimination of towers won’t put airports out of business, nor is it likely to prevent aircraft from using them.
“We can operate if this happens,” said Harry Becker, general manager of Atlantic Aviation in Waukesha. “Is it going to affect us? Yes. It’s a safety factor.”
Yet in Congress, the polarized political attitudes that led to sequestration remain.
Asked whether the Airport Improvement Program should be trimmed to preserve air traffic control operations, U.S. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., responded, “Absolutely.”
Sensenbrenner’s district includes the Waukesha County Airport.
“The first thing we have to do is we have to make sure existing air traffic is safe,” he said. “Why improve an airport if you don’t have people in the control tower to control the planes that take off and land there? That makes no sense at all.”
Sensenbrenner said in a statement that he intends to write FAA Administrator Michael Huerta to question the closures and inquire “how much taxpayer money is being spent on the FAA’s Airport Improvement Program, which funnels money to remote airports, like the one in Saipan, while towers around the country are being shut down.”
U.S. Rep. Gwen Moore, D-Wis., whose congressional district includes Mitchell International and Timmerman Airport in Milwaukee, sees things from a different perspective.
“What others call spending, I call investment,” Moore said in an emailed response to questions about aviation spending and the Airport Improvement Program. “The projects and infrastructure these funds go toward are necessary to rebuild our economy. We should not be picking and choosing between the different sectors of government.
“We didn’t cut our way out of the Great Depression and we won’t cut our way out of the Great Recession. Greater investment is needed in all sectors,” Moore said.
The circumstances that led to the control tower cuts are hindering the nation’s economy, said Ward, the economist.
“There was never a thought that the federal government was particularly efficient at pointing out high-return investments,” he said. “But it’s very clear now that we’re getting a situation where the federal money is not being funneled to where it is most efficient.
“All the clutter and disputes aside, that’s the real economic problem,” Ward added. “If you keep doing this, it creates a drag on the economy. It’s irrational and … it leads to the inefficient use of scarce resources. Neither side seems to be willing to budge. That’s where we are.”