Airport Directors and Economic Development
February 19, 2010 by Praxis Foundation
Here’s the headline from Abilene, Texas: Changes shouldn’t affect air traffic safety at Abilene Regional Airport.
The article opens with the city’s Director of Aviation, a gentleman named G***, supporting the relocation of the onsite approach control to Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW). Here’s the newspaper article reporting Mr. G***’s comments:
G*** said the consolidation is something that has been planned for several years, based on cost savings available through new technology.
“This does not affect the service provided by the controllers in the cab of the tower who issue take off and landing clearances and actually see and control aircraft within five miles of the airport,” he said.
G*** said the FAA has said safety “won’t be affected” by the consolidation.
“The radar image of the area and radio communication will be the same in D-FW as it is here,” he said. “The approach controller in D-FW will have the same radar and communications capability as those currently in Abilene.”
I’d like to say, first, that I have no doubt that Mr. G*** is a good person and a responsible advocate for the Abilene airport. I’m sure he’s eager to develop the airport for economic development and understands the importance of scheduled airline service to his community. That’s why I’m not blogging his name; he’s one of the good guys.
What I believe is that he has accepted the story he’s been given uncritically, and I understand why any local airport manager might do so: a promise based on new technology is plausible, and he’s being briefed by the experts, the people who are supposed to know this ATC stuff.
What’s the priority of a Director of Aviation? Two things: safety and economic development. In fact, the Abilene Airport website explains its mission in the following terms:
The City of Abilene operates Abilene Regional Airport, which provides economic development opportunities to both the private and public sectors. American Eagle services the airport and provides competitive airfares from Abilene to many places around the United States and the world.
What’s unfortunate is that the Director of Aviation has gone on the record as supporting the relocation of Approach Control to a remote site without considering the implications of it.
Suppose, instead, the Director of Aviation was briefed using these four powerpoint slides:
- The local economy will initially lose 20 well-paid white-collar jobs (the approach controllers).
- Your 20 approach controllers will transfer to DFW. They will absolutely see the same screens as they do now. No problem. There are, of course, increased points of failure in all the new telecom links, and we’re not known for doing well with those.
- When the majority of your approach controllers retire in the next five years their replacements will be trained at DFW. Those next-generation, DFW-trained approach controllers won’t know Abiline from Abilene. They’ll never develop the local knowledge your onsite 20 approach controllers have.
- You’re cooperating with outsourcing your Approach Control. From an economic development perspective, would you outsource your 911 Center? Your police department?
- You’re used to walking across the ramp and sitting down with the Approach Control Manager. A big part of his job is to keep you happy. In this new regime, you’re going to try to see the D-FW Manager. He’s got twenty satellite airport directors, and you are not his primary customer.
- This change is not the only one that the Feds have in mind. Initially, you’re going from 40 controllers at your airport, to 20 controllers at your tower and 20 approach controllers at DFW. Eventually you’re going to lose all 40 onsite controllers.
- Once the Approach function is outsourced, it’s going to be hard to staff your tower-only facility. It’s going to be very easy to cost-justify contracting out your Control Tower. You’re going to lose your 20 federal tower controllers, and your community is going to lose another 20 jobs with good salaries.
- Ask the folks in New Braunfels, Texas how they like their contract tower. (hint, hint)
- In 2014, the Feds are going to start replacing stand-alone towers with “virtual towers”- windowless rooms with computer displays in a few central locations. It’s on their website. Once that happens, there will be no onsite ATC presence at your airport anymore.
- American Eagle has to choose which airport to increase (or decrease) scheduled service into. Think it’s going to matter to them if your ATC is offsite and your tower is virtual, while Otherville has their own onsite approach control and tower?
- Amalgamated Inc. is relocating, and they’re thinking about Abilene. They keep five Gulfstreams at their homebase. Think it’s going to matter to them if your ATC is offsite, while Otherville has their own onsite approach control?
- You enabled these things when you let them take your approach control away.
I’m not a Director of Aviation. But if I were a Director of Aviation and I was given the briefing points above, I’d be rather irate about the Fed’s plan to save money and reduce their footprint at the expense of my community’s safety and economic development.
The other thing that’s interesting about the Abilene situation is that they’re getting a new tower which doesn’t have room for an approach control. That means (1) this was a pre-determined outcome and (2) they’ve known about it for years. Those nice people who briefed the local aviation authority were carpetbaggers, all hat and no cattle.