Albert Whitted Airport Control Towers and the Sequester: A Review of the Facts and Some Questions for the Citizens.

albertwhittedcontroltowerThere has been great consternation regarding the coming closure of the Albert Whitted Air Traffic Control Tower this month.  The tower is being used as a political football by the Obama Administration to demonstrate to America how much we are dependent on Federal Spending for air traffic control and other services.  The “sequestration” of funds to solve the massive government overspending is being used to spark this particular crisis, but clearly the massive overspending of the Federal government is at the heart of the problem.  Sadly, instead of going after the billions money we give to foreign governments (many of them hostile to America) the Obama administration is targeting American communities with scare tactics.  There can be little doubt that the specter of planes crashing into our city is a powerful tool of propaganda to help the politicians get their way.  There is no role for such scare tactics in a rationale society, but it is par for the course from politicians who seem to have no problem jeopardizing public safety for their own political gain.  An evaluation of the facts as it relates to Albert Whitted airports control tower and operations are useful in understanding this melodrama.  To help get the facts, Sun Beam Times Founder and St. Petersburg City Council Candidate Dr. David McKalip spoke to Richard Lesniak, an employee of the City of St. Petersburg who manages the airport as well as managers at similar airports in Hillsborough County. A set of questions for the Citizens emerges based on this analysis.

The Albert Whittled tower provides air traffic control to about 100,000 flights in the St. Petersburg Airspace every year including about 85,000 takeoffs and landings.  These flights are controlled in our airspace by seven full and part time private controllers paid for by the Federal government through a program known as the FAA’s “Federal Contracted Tower” (FCT) program.  Albert Whitted has had controlled traffic since the 1960’s and has had controllers through the FCT program since the ‘90’s.  Since they are private, the FCT controllers cost less since they do not have the federally guaranteed and costly defined pension and health benefits of government workers.  Albert Whitted is in complex airspace with two major commercial airports, MacDill Air Force Base and other smaller airports.  The seven FCT controllers cost about $500,000 per year and it is completely paid for with Federal tax dollars*.   

Albert Whitted opened a new $3.1 million tower in 2011 based on $2.1 million in Federal Funds secured from the U.S. government by Congressman Young and another $1 million from the “Stimulus” program passed in 2009. The tower itself is just a structure and it is not threatened; it is the staff inside that will lose funding.  According to Mr. Lesniak, the City’s Airport Manager, these controllers operate from 7 a.m. to 9 pm and if the airport loses them, Albert Whitted will revert to being a “non-towered” airport.  A non-towered airport would require that the pilots use predetermined protocols to communicate amongst themselves to manage their flight. As it turns out two other airports in the Tampa Bay area currently are “non-towered”.  The “Tampa Executive Airport” operate at about the I-4 and I-75 intersection in Hillsborough County and has approximately 18,000 to 36,000 take offs and landing every year.  The Tampa Executive Airport is run by a private company and owned by Hillsborough County.  The Peter O. Knight Airport is also privately managed and owned by Hillsborough County.  They operate very close to MacDill and also have no control tower program. They have been estimated to have under 50,000 takeoffs and landings per year. Both Tampa Executive and Peter O. Knight have good safety records that are comparable to others in the area according to airport management there and Mr. Lesniak.

Mr. Lesniak advised the Sun Beam Times that there is currently an effort under way to see if the State of Florida can fund the FCT employees in the short term while the sequester is working itself out politically. He advised that there has been an effort by the Obama Administration to require a “User’s fee” on all of commercial and general aviation in the past.  Congress has opposed a fee of $100 per flight proposed by President Obama in the past.  However a much smaller fee would allow pilots and airplane companies to pay their own costs for air traffic control in St. Petersburg. If Albert Whitted manages 85,000 take off and landings per year, they could charge about $7.50 per event and bring in about $637,500 per year.  That would be about $15 per flight. That would more than cover the cost of the controllers which is now at $500,000.  Mr. Lesniak indicates that the pilots and aviation industry would likely oppose such a move and it would be the first airport in the state to do so.

Here is a summary of facts:

  • Albert Whitted has had a control tower model for traffic control since the ‘60s.

  • Albert Whitted will lose federal funding of $500,000 for 7 controllers April 21st if nothing changes.

  • Albert Whitted has about 85,000 takeoffs and landing a year and managers about 100,000 flights per year in ST. Petersburg Airspace, making it a busy municipal airport in a complex flight area.

  • Other airports of comparable size operate safely without air traffic controllers and do not cost Federal taxpayers any money for air traffic control.

  • There are over 5000 airports across the country and the vast majority are “non-towered” or “non-control” airports.

  • Albert Whitted could revert to a “non-towered” airport, but the City’s airport management is concerned that this would be a safety issue.

    Federal dollars are being cut since the U.S. government prints and/or borrows an over $1trillion per year to pay its expenses of over $3 trillion per year.

  • The FCT private controllers could be paid for with other dollars besides federal dollars.

  • The state may step in temporarily to cover the costs of the FCT controllers at Albert Whitted Airport.

  • If the pilots and air operation companies paid their own air traffic control costs, it would likely amount to $15 per flight to keep the Albert Whitted control tower up and running.

  • Money could be saved on the FCT program by reducing hours from the current 14 hours per day to about 9 hours per day (8am to 6 pm) during the busiest times (The airport still has flight activity even now on a 24 hour a day schedule without controllers from 9pm to 7 am).

  So the following questions are presented to the citizens of St. Petersburg: 

  •  Is it necessary to have air traffic controllers at Albert Whitted if comparable airports in the Tamp Bay area have been operating without them for many years?
  • Can St. Petersburg Residents benefit by not borrowing more money to pay for Federal programs like this?  (Will the benefit of lower federal taxes and less inflation from printed money be worth it?)

  • Can the pilots and airline companies that benefit the most from the flights afford about $15 per flight to fund their own air traffic control? Can the passengers who use these services afford that amount of money?

  • Can savings be found by converting Albert Whitted’s management to a private company (as in Hillsborough County) so the saved money can be redirected to paying for the private traffic controllers? 

  • Can the tower operate for fewer hours with a smaller staff, focusing on the busiest times?

 * However, as our American Taxpayers now bear an annual spending deficit of over $1 trillion and a total budget of about $16.5 trillion, cost savings are clearly needed.  Currently the deficit spending is paid for by borrowing money from foreigners and by the printing of dollars by the Federal reserve, a practice that will eventually lead to inflation as the overabundance of dollars loses value (this is the true source of the Stock Market rise by the way –  inflation).

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One Reply:

  1. Tom

    This is an excellent start to a public conversation on this taxpayer subsidized airport.

    Please let me add a few points.

    As you point out aircraft owners can well afford to pay to operate our airport without taxpayer support. They could even pay a little extra and use that to pay back the federal grants.

    While we are stuck wasting time and gas in bad traffic on dangerous roads city council members and other politicians have free use of private planes provided by airplane owners grateful for subsidies. They can go to Orlando, Tallahassee or Miami for meetings(often really vacations) without expensive and inconvenient commercial flights or long drives. They don’t care about the congested roads we drive on because they have an alternative.

    Bill Young has given us federal money for things no other city could have but the matching funds, operating and other costs make it unwise to take these earmarks and the nation suffers from his deficit spending.

    The airport imposes a height limit that wastes the value of prime waterfront property where the top floors have the best view and greatest value. USF St. Pete is sprawled out into 2 story buildings when the free market would demand a few taller buildings in a compact and efficient campus. This is part of the cost of maintaining the airport.

    Public land tied up for the airport could be sold or leased to developers for many millions of dollars that would reduce our taxes. Condos and offices would then produce new tax revenue that would further reduce everybody’s taxes. This is also part of the cost of maintaining the airport. Mayor Baker was thought to have a plan close the airport and do this but citizens forced a public vote on turning the airport into a park. Many voted to preserve the airport in the mistake notion that the parkland would actually be condos.

    Any development could include an expansion of waterfront parkland. This would preserve public open space and enhance the value of interior land.

    The waterfront master plan should inform the people of all options for this land and help us make a sound decision.

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