Zombie Towers Live as Taxpayers Fund Flightless Skies

Zombie Hubs Keep U.S. Funds for Towers Long After Airlines Leave
Once the city’s main airport, Willow Run now averages about one landing or takeoff an hour after 1 a.m. Photographer: Jeff Kowalsky/Bloomberg

More than 100 U.S. airport towers and radar rooms have so few flights that they should be shut down late at night under the government’s own guidelines, a move that would save taxpayers $10 million a year.

Air-traffic controllers, who make a median $108,000 annual wage, have little to do overnight at those locations, which remain open because of pressure from lawmakers who control the Federal Aviation Administration’s budget. Members of Congress from both parties have blocked attempts to cut tower hours or merge radar rooms, according to interviews and documents.

Some other FAA facilities employ many more controllers than called for by agency guidelines, after an almost 17 percent decline in U.S. flight activity from 2000 to 2010, according to FAA data compiled by Bloomberg.

“You should be outraged if you’re worried about the federal budgets and deficits,” said George Donohue, the FAA’s associate administrator under President Bill Clinton. “This is crazy.”

The inefficiencies persist as the FAA faces $1 billion in automatic budget cuts beginning Jan. 2 if Congress can’t reach a deficit-reduction deal.

A total of 102 FAA-staffed towers and local radar rooms open all night don’t have enough air traffic to justify seven-day, 24-hour operations, the FAA found in an internal survey from July 1, 2010, to June 30, 2011. The agency has 294 such facilities.

Idle Controllers

The staffing issues were compounded by Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood’s April 2011 order that there be at least two controllers at each facility on overnight duty, following a series of lone staffers falling asleep. Most towers covered by LaHood’s order don’t have enough traffic to be open overnight at all, according to FAA data.

LaHood declined a request through Sasha Johnson, his spokeswoman, to comment.

The FAA study was among hundreds of pages of documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. The wrangles with Congress were confirmed by 10 former agency officials familiar with internal deliberations at the agency.

Willow Run Airport, about 10 miles west of Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport, is an example of a facility targeted by the FAA for reduced hours. Once the city’s main airport, Willow Run now averages about one landing or takeoff an hour after 1 a.m.

Bipartisan Pressure

That put Willow Run on the FAA list of 102 facilities that could move their overnight controllers to busier time periods. The plan was stopped after pressure from lawmakers including Representative John Dingell, the Michigan Democrat who’s the longest-serving member of the U.S. House.

Agency logs of contacts between members of Congress and agency officials obtained by Bloomberg show at least 26 instances in which lawmakers from both parties pressured the agency regarding controller staffing levels or the location of air-traffic facilities from 2010 through May 2012.

The pressure campaigns include a 2010 plea from 16 of Ohio’s 18 members of Congress and two contacts from a Texas Republican who identifies himself as a supporter of the Tea Party movement, which advocates for less government spending.

“Congress still feels that it’s the board of directors of the FAA,” said Stephen Van Beek, a member of the FAA’s Management Advisory Council and a former associate deputy to the secretary of transportation.

Effort Shelved

The National Air Traffic Controllers Association, the union representing about 15,000 controllers, conducted a campaign against efforts to merge radar rooms in Ohio, Michigan and other locations, according to a 2010 union newsletter. The union said mergers would undercut safety and didn’t have the benefits the FAA claimed.

The FAA shelved the effort to consolidate those flight-tracking facilities, known as Terminal Radar Approach Control rooms or TRACONs.

The former FAA officials acknowledged the agency has at times underestimated costs of closing radar rooms and needs to include the union in decisions.

The congressional actions threaten to undermine the $42-billion NextGen air-traffic upgrade, they said. Most TRACONs will have to be shut down or merged for the new system to meet its hoped-for efficiency gains, according to a July 17 report from the Transportation Department’s inspector general.

Ford, Lindbergh

Closing towers during low-traffic periods at the 102 underutilized facilities could save taxpayers an average of $100,000 per location, or more than $10 million in reduced overtime and night differential pay, according to FAA documents obtained through FOIA.

Willow Run benefited from the political muscle of Michigan’s delegation.

Opened by Henry Ford in 1942 to construct B-24 Liberator bombers with the help of Charles Lindbergh, the airport served as Detroit’s chief passenger terminal in the 1950s and then became a cargo and charter facility catering to the auto industry.

Now, in the hours after midnight, the dozen or so abandoned planes scattered around the tarmac outnumber the flights taking off and landing.

When the FAA last year sought to close Willow Run’s tower from midnight to 6 a.m., Michigan’s two Democratic Senators, Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow, joined forces with Dingell in a campaign to crush the proposal.

One Flight

Cargo shipped through the airport peaked at more than 1 billion pounds in 2001, according to FAA statistics. Last year it fell to 247 million pounds, down 77 percent. The FAA says the number of commercial flights has fallen by a similar amount, from 41,456 in 2000 to 12,949 in 2010 -- down to about 35 a day -- a 69 percent decline.

On average, 1.48 flights an hour land or take off at Willow Run from midnight to 6 a.m., the FAA traffic study found. From 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. the number is about one an hour. On Sundays, less than one plane every other hour arrives or departs in that time period.

At other facilities, controllers often handle dozens of flights an hour. An FAA order says towers with four or fewer flights an hour can be closed. It allows exceptions, including if an airport has military flights or commercial traffic.

The agency estimated that more than $100,000 a year in overtime and additional pay for night shifts could be saved if the tower closed for six hours each day.

No Safety Loss

Safety or operations at the airport wouldn’t be compromised, according to the study. Runway lighting would be improved so planes could continue to land in poor weather conditions, the agency proposed. Under FAA rules, aircraft including commercial jets often land without towers.

Levin, Stabenow and Dingell already knew of the agency’s plan and were leaning on then-FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt to block it.

“Willow Run Airport is a key economic engine for Southeast Michigan,” the three lawmakers said in a Feb. 4, 2011, letter. Closing the tower at night would cause “a severe impact to operations at the airport.”

Babbitt notified Levin in a phone call on Sept. 7, 2011, that the airport would keep its overnight staffing, Kathleen Long, a spokeswoman for Levin, said in an e-mail. Levin was unavailable for an interview, she said. Babbitt, who resigned from the FAA in December 2011, declined to be interviewed. He is now a senior vice president at Southwest Airlines Co.

Second Controller

Dingell Chief of Staff Katie Murtha referred questions to Levin’s office because he had taken the lead on the issue, she said in an interview. Will Eberle, a spokesman for Stabenow, didn’t respond to a telephone request for comment.

The agency reversed its decision because of the airport’s complex runway layout and the need for international flights to be greeted by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the FAA said in an e-mail statement.

LaHood’s order then added a second staffer to the sole night controller at Willow Run whom the FAA deemed superfluous.

Another location with 24-hour controller staffing, Tri-State Airport in Huntington, West Virginia, didn’t have a single period during the day or night when it averaged more than four flights an hour, according to agency documents. That places it below the agency’s minimum standards of traffic to justify keeping the tower open at all.

Twenty controllers staff the airport’s tower and an adjoining radar room, according to the FAA’s latest staffing report.

Rahall’s District

The airport recorded 17,241 landings and takeoffs in 2010, the lowest of any FAA-staffed tower, a 69 percent drop from 2000.

Representative Nick Rahall, whose district includes the airport and who is the highest ranking Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee that oversees FAA, said in an interview that he had pushed the agency to maintain staffing at the airport.

“We’ve been in communication with the union, we’ve been in communication with FAA and we, at every opportunity, tried to ensure that it is adequately staffed,” Rahall said.

Pressure on the FAA also comes from lawmakers who decry government waste, fraud and abuse.

Representative Randy Neugebauer, a Texas Republican, contacted the FAA on June 15, 2011, to pass along local officials’ concerns about moving the Abilene, Texas, TRACON.

On June 23, 2010, he raised safety questions with the FAA about shutting the tower overnight at Preston Smith International Airport in Lubbock, Texas, according to FAA logs.

Tea Party

On his website, Neugebauer describes himself as a “strong advocate for fiscal discipline.” He’s listed as a member of the House Tea Party Caucus.

Neugebauer, in an e-mail, said he wanted to ensure FAA actions were justified financially. “The airports in Lubbock and Abilene are important transportation centers in West Texas,” he said.

“Politicians are very good at a lot of things, but actually running an air traffic system? Probably not,” Steve James, former head of international relations at the U.K.’s privatized air-traffic provider, NATS Ltd., said in an interview. “It should be left to the people who really understand it.”

Reduced flight activity over the past decade was triggered by airline consolidations, increasing fuel prices and declining private flying. Air traffic has fallen by 50 percent or more since 2000 at 47 airports with FAA-staffed towers, including former airline hubs in Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and St. Louis.

Pittsburgh, St. Louis

Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport’s tower and regional air-traffic facility, for example, lost 61 percent of its flight activity for the same period after Delta Air Lines Inc. reduced operations. Its 77-person controller roster is 26 more than required, according to an FAA report.

At Pittsburgh, traffic at the airport and its TRACON has fallen almost 60 percent from levels in 2000 because US Airways Group Inc. eliminated its hub there. The facilities have gone from 65 controllers in 2006 to 51 last year, according to the FAA document. That’s still 10 more than the agency’s highest estimate of what it needs.

The radar room overseeing St. Louis-area traffic, which has fallen 50 percent since 2000, has 43 controllers, 11 more than needed, according to the FAA.

The controllers union until recently operated a website designed to marshal opposition to an FAA effort to shut down smaller air-traffic facilities and move them to larger centers. It doesn’t agree that the system is overstaffed, union President Paul Rinaldi said in an e-mail statement.


The workforce is in the midst of a wave of retirements of people hired after President Ronald Reagan fired striking controllers in 1981 and needs to grow to keep pace, Rinaldi said.

“Looking narrowly at individual airport locations and the current air traffic there misses the larger and more important point,” Rinaldi said.

The union supports consolidating air-traffic facilities where it is justified, Rinaldi said at a May 31 hearing before the House aviation subcommittee.

The union objects to FAA attempts to act without consulting controllers, Rinaldi said in the e-mail. Consolidations have ended up costing more, not less, he said.

Salary increases have helped cause consolidations to cost more than expected, the July 17 report by the Transportation Department’s Inspector General found.

Flexibility, Control

Controllers, whose median annual wage is $108,000 according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, get raises to move to a larger facility, even if they are overseeing the same traffic as they had at their previous location, David Grizzle, the FAA’s head of air traffic, said at the May 31 congressional hearing.

When asked about the pay issue, NATCA spokesman Doug Church said in an e-mail: “We fundamentally reject the premise of the question.” Pay is set by the traffic levels and complexity of a facility, he said.

The need for flexibility and cost control is growing in importance because of the FAA’s plan to move in coming decades from radar-based traffic tracking to the NextGen satellite system, aviation experts said.

Many air-traffic centers are too old to accommodate new computers, according to the July IG report. The efficiencies promised by the new technology can’t be accomplished without bringing controllers into larger facilities, Malcolm Rae, programs director for NATS, the U.K. air-traffic company, said in an interview.

Merging controllers under one roof makes it easier to make flight paths more efficient and to introduce new technology, Rae said.

Safety Concerns

When a plan surfaced to close the TRACON at Palm Beach International Airport in Florida, and move it into the facility in Miami, the union opposed it, saying that it would make the region more vulnerable to losing service during a hurricane. The FAA said it had an alternate backup plan.

Representative Alcee Hastings, a Florida Democrat whose district includes the airport, successfully fought the move.

Hastings’ staff was alerted to the FAA’s move by the controllers’ union, he said in an interview. He became convinced that it would harm safety.

The Florida lawmaker wrote legislation barring such consolidations. On May 18, 2009, in the middle of the wrangle, the union gave Hastings its “Sentinel of Safety” award. NATCA has given Hastings $38,500 in campaign donations since 2006, according to OpenSecrets.org, a freedom of information group.

Babbitt Meeting

Hastings said he helped organize a July 2009 meeting with LaHood, Babbitt, local airport officials and controllers. Last November, the agency relented and agreed to keep the controllers stationed at the Palm Beach airport.

While Hastings is a Democrat, the FAA in recent years has backed off a similar plan in Republican stronghold Boise, Idaho, after facing opposition from U.S. and local lawmakers.

One proposal that wasn’t shelved -- a plan to build a super air-traffic center to oversee the congested skies above New York, New Jersey and Philadelphia -- has attracted bipartisan protest.

Four members of Congress representing Long Island, three Democrats and a Republican, have joined with Democratic Senator Charles Schumer to demand that the agency keep the facility on Long Island, instead of less expensive locations in upstate New York or New Jersey.

Congressional Deadline

Donohue said he saw many similar cases play out during his four-year tenure at FAA. The career staffers under him were resigned to the outcome, he said.

“They said, ‘Why do you want to do battle with these guys? They are going to get their way whether it’s wrong or right,’ ” he said.

Congress, in legislation setting policy guidelines that became law Feb. 14, has attempted to give the FAA a way out: the equivalent of the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission that would identify facilities to shut down, subject to an up-or-down vote on the entire list. It ordered the agency to work with the union and industry to draw up a plan for consolidating its facilities.

Congress would have 30 days to disapprove of the plan. If it didn’t, the FAA would have to go ahead with its proposal.

The agency missed the June 13 deadline to present its plan.

More might need to be done, some former agency officials said. The challenges the FAA faces can only be met if the agency’s air-traffic division is unshackled from congressional influence by creating an independent private or semi-private management structure, they said.

British Example

Air-traffic agencies in Great Britain, Canada and Australia have such arrangements. Skies over the U.K. are controlled by NATS, which is 49 percent owned by the British government, with additional stakes held by its own employees and airport operator BAA. Under that structure, put in place more than a decade ago, NATS was able to consolidate facilities and in the fiscal year ended March 31 reported pretax profit of 195 million pounds ($309 million).

As government budget pressure intensifies, the urgency grows for the FAA to find ways to change its structure and save money, said Van Beek, now executive director of Leigh Fisher Management Consultants of Reston, Virginia.

“The FAA is going to have to become more efficient if it’s going to have enough resources to pay for the programs that are out there,” he said.

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