The ATC tower at Danbury Airport in Connecticut, which is scheduled to close on May 5. (photo: John McCarth
The ATC tower at Danbury Airport in Connecticut, which is scheduled to close on May 5. (photo: John McCarthy)

Sequestration: How Tower Closures Will Affect You

Expect the possibility of delays at airports you use, starting April 7. That date marks the beginning of a four-week period during which 149 air-traffic-control towers are scheduled to close because of Congress’s “sequester” law, though the airports themselves will remain open. The FAA has indicated that local funding could keep towers operational, and on March 28 the Texas DOT said it plans to fund 13 at-risk-of-closing towers in that state.

Notable tower closures include those at Igor I. Sikorsky Memorial in Bridgeport, Connecticut; San Diego Brown Field; Atlanta Cobb County-McCollum Field; Chicago Waukegan; New Bedford [Massachusetts] Regional; Trenton [New Jersey] Mercer; Flight Options’ home base at Cuyahoga County in Cleveland, Ohio; and Dallas Executive. You can find a complete list of tower closures here.

While no one can predict for certain how the closures will affect business jet passengers, almost everyone agrees that the action will cause inconvenience such as departure delays. This is because most charter companies and many private operators follow instrument flight rules (IFR), which means air traffic controllers track them from start to finish.

“In the past, with a tower operating, you’d get your [IFR] clearance from ground control,” commented corporate pilot Chauncey Webb. “Now, with no tower, everyone has to call [via phone or radio] the flight service station. Everyone will be calling the same person, and it’s not like they are increasing the manpower at these places.”

Wayne Toher, president of charter provider Reliant Air in Danbury, Connecticut, said, “Passengers should get ready for a little more inconvenience at remote airports, and to expect to feel the effects right away.”

Webb and Toher think that the delays, on average, will be around 20 minutes. But Webb pointed out that “you won't be able to get clearance to take off until you are ready to go, and a lot depends on weather. On bad-weather days, the delays for takeoff could exceed an hour.”

While 20 minutes may not seem like much, it could be significant to business travelers. “Even a brief delay can impact the business at hand,” said Laura Everington, manager of regulatory services for flight-planning and -services company Universal Weather and Aviation. “It’s a disruption to commerce and trade.”

Everington added that her company is advising clients to be “very proactive and do feasibility checks on every trip. Do not assume that an airport will be open just because it has been for the past 20 years.” She pointed out that the federal cuts could particularly impact international travelers. “Don’t assume that there will be customs clearance on an international arrival just because there always has been,” she said.

The closures have raised concerns about safety, though most general aviation pilots are already accustomed to landing in areas with no control towers. One pilot, who asked to remain anonymous, compared the tower closures to “a city that has 500 traffic lights and one morning 150 are turned off. Just like in a city with fewer stoplights, traffic will move more slowly and not as safely.”

Said Toher: “We already fly into airports with no towers, and sometimes they can get extremely busy. We deal with it very carefully. A non-controlled airfield presents another level of caution for business fliers, and we deal with it with heightened alertness and with the knowledge that there could be someone flying around the pattern who doesn’t know what he is doing. We are looking out the window.”

If this issue concerns you, it may make sense to reach out to your state congressional representative or local government officials. The National Business Aviation Association has been vocal about the tower closures and has several resources available. BJT will continue to follow this story to give you updates on how the sequester could affect your business jet travel.