April 5, 2013 at 12:29 PM ET
The Federal Aviation Administration on Friday said it will delay the closures of all 149 air traffic control towers at smaller airports around the country until June 15. The towers were scheduled to be shut down starting this weekend.
In a statement, FAA said the extension gives it time to resolve legal challenges to the decision to shut down the towers. "As part of the tower closure implementation process, the agency continues to consult with airports and operators and review appropriate risk mitigations," the release said. "Extending the transition deadline will give the FAA and airports more time to execute the changes to the National Airspace System."
Federal officials insist the closures won't compromise safety, and there's evidence that some of the closures may even make economic sense, the Associated Press reported Friday.
According to the AP report:
It turns out that FAA has been using 30-year-old data on aircraft collisions to justify the cost of operating many of the control towers, even though accident rates have improved significantly over that time.
Had the FAA used more current data, it's probable that some low-traffic airport towers operated by private contractors would no longer have met the agency's criteria for funding, say industry officials. But the FAA has long been under pressure from members of Congress to open new towers at airports in their states, not to close them.
The FAA began paying contractors to staff and operate towers at a handful of small airports after President Ronald Reagan fired striking air traffic controllers in 1981. Today, there are 251 towers operated by private contractors at airports across the country at an average annual cost of more than $500,000 each.
In 1990, the FAA developed a complicated cost-benefit methodology for the tower program that relies on accident data from 1983 to 1986 to determine how many accidents would be averted and lives saved if an airport had controllers working onsite. The safety data have never been updated, despite marked improvements in accident rates.
In 1983, there were 10.7 accidents for every 100,000 departures involving small planes, business jets and other non-airline flights in the U.S., according to the National Transportation Safety Board. By 2011, the latest year for which figures are available, that rate had dropped to 6.5 accidents per 100,000 departures. The commercial airline accident rate dropped from 0.42 per 100,000 departures to 0.34 per 100,000 over the same period. And fatalities have declined even more. There have been no passenger airline fatalities in the U.S. in more than four years, the longest period without fatalities since the dawn of the jet age half a century ago.
"None of the formulas have been updated since 1990, despite a very significant change in the aviation operating environment and the general aviation and commercial accident rates," the FAA said in a statement Thursday in response to questions from The Associated Press. "The FAA is in the process of updating this policy."
Agency officials offered no explanation for the oversight.