AUBURN, Wash. -- Over the past several weeks, a lot’s been written about which airports may see their air traffic control towers closed, and a number of threatened towers are here in Washington. The FAA is saying it expects to announce on Friday which towers will stay open.
While the classic glassed in towers are what everybody knows and thinks of when driving to the airport, they’re just part of a much larger air traffic system.
The FAA’s en-route air traffic control facility in Auburn controls traffic between airports over much of the Northwest, from Washington east to western Montana, and south about as far as Redding, California. There are few windows in this “tower” but lots of screens.
On April 21 the National Air Traffic Controller’s Association (NATCA), the union representing controllers working for the FAA, says furloughs will kick in. There are no expected layoffs, but controllers will be working 72 instead of 80-hour pay periods.
At the Air Route Traffic Control Center, one of 20 in the nation, that means a typical 10 person shift may drop to nine or even eight - and that’s if there are no sick calls.
“We’re stressing the system,” said Troy Harrison, an air traffic controller here who typically monitors airliners flight at high altitudes.
At a time when the U.S. aviation system has never been safer, and delays are low, the furloughs raise concerns about safety and threatens departure delays, missed connections and even flight cancellations. Plans to deal with the furloughs are still being formulated.
“We really don’t know what it’s going to look like,” said Harrison. But some techniques used now to help the system operate smoothly in a pinch could become everyday when the budget cuts start to bite. He says controllers would likely double up on sectors, meaning one controller would become responsible for a bigger piece of the sky. Controllers may have to stay focused on their stations for up to two hours without a break, instead of a more typical 90 minutes.
There are other ways to make the system work. In the past, controllers have managed hiccups in the system by limiting the number of planes that can take off, so called “gate holds.”
“There will be traffic management initiatives taking place where we’re going to ask the airports to start delaying airplanes a little more,” said Harrison.
Sea-Tac officials say they don’t expect the sequester-generated cuts to create a large direct impact. Nobody at the region’s largest airport expect to have their tower shut down. But Sea-Tac won’t be immune from broader impacts to the system, especially at much larger hub airports like LAX, Chicago O’Hare and Dallas.