A transportation system functions properly when it forms vital social and economic connections. This is the case in rural America where distance and a scattered population make transport a dominant issue. We will take a brief look at the contribution made by rural airports, as well as possible effects from the current federal budget impasse.
General aviation consists of all civilian air traffic that is not scheduled passenger airline service. Eliminating air traffic controller services at smaller airports will greatly affect general aviation because pilots rely on air traffic controllers on approach and take off. The majority of the 149 towers slated for closure under the current plan handle general aviation traffic. Reduced services at smaller airports will have a serious economic affect on communities that rely on air transit for businesses and other purposes. For example, aircraft operating from rural area airports are often used in such projects as power and pipeline inspections. Firms exploring sites for wind energy projects use rural airports due to their proximity to the project sites. News teams use public access rural airports because they can land without prior approval. Rural airports are also vital as a quick transit source for emergency response teams in the event of fires, floods, earthquakes or other natural disasters. General aviation will also be affected because pilot training requires a certain number of take offs and landings at towered airports. If the proposed tower closings go into effect, approximately 24,000 aviation and related industry jobs could be lost.
The FAA, which is responsible for the safety and efficiency of civil aviation in the United States, has a $15 billion budget distributed among a range of activities. It provides nearly a fourth of those funds as grants-in-aid to local airports. This might be a place where the largest share of the cuts could be taken, but the sequestration law won’t allow it. Nor will it allow a disproportionate slice to be taken at facilities and equipment, which accounts for twenty per cent of the agency’s budget. The required 9 to 10 per cent cut in Federal Aviation Administration spending, about $1.35 billion, must be taken equally from all activities, including control tower operations. The FAA also recently announced that it would end funding for more than three-fourths of contract towers at local airports around the country. Contract towers are air traffic control towers operated by a private company, but funded by the FAA. The program reaches all 50 states, includes 250 towers and has a long history as a safe, cost-effective alternative to FAA operated towers in low-service, rural areas.
A favorable resolution of the federal budget is imperative for the future of general aviation. While the sequestration has made proportionate cuts among all federal agencies, not many of them contribute $1.3 trillion to our national GDP every year.